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Understanding Grain Defense Mechanisms

grain fields.tifCrop scientists at Washington State University have explained how genes in the barley plant turn on defenses against aging and stressors like drought, heat and disease.

Professor Diter von Wettstein and assistant research professor Sachin Rustgi showed that specific genes act as a switch that enables barley to live longer and become more tolerant of stress, including attack by common diseases like mildew and spot blotch.

The findings, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, solve a long-standing mystery and offer hope for production of grain crops able to thrive during unpredictable weather and climate change. Cereal grains such as wheat, barley, corn and rice need an essential amount of growing time to produce abundant yields. Environmental stressors such as heat and drought can trigger early aging of plants, which slows growth and decreases yield and grain quality.

Von Wettstein and Rustgi discovered that two barley genes, called JIP60 and JIP60-like, play a major role in the protective actions triggered by a key plant defense hormone called jasmonate or JA. Like a watchful sentry, JA responds at the first sign of plant distress, producing proteins that prepare the plant to combat excess heat, lack of water or attack by disease organisms. The proteins also slow aging. It had been known since the 1990s that JA played a role in plant resistance but von Wettstein and Rustgi are the first to document how resistance actually takes place.

This summary appears in the November 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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