Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 10:08 AM
Brian Clark/Washington State University
Washington State University professor of plant pathology Lee Hadwiger works in a WSU greenhouse with pea plants. Hadwiger is working to understand why plants have naturally-occurring immunity to many of the diseases that surround them and translate it into plants against the diseases that affect them.
A Washington State University plant researcher is studying what makes plants immune to many diseases surrounding them but not others.
Lee Hadwiger, a professor of plant pathology, has traced that immunity to the molecular level. He has found that fungal enzymes called DNase cause changes in a plant's DNA molecules, which in turn triggers the plant's resistance to certain pathogens. Hadwiger hopes to figure out how to use that naturally occurring change in plants to help them resist diseases.
Hadwiger said immunity in the plant genome would reduce the need for fungicides or herbicides to control disease.
"There's no silver bullet -- it would probably not make the plants just totally immune," he said, "but it would certainly help. I don't know what it will do, because we haven't really gone that far with it."
For his research, Hadwiger used baker's yeast to turn on the immune response in pea plants. They have also triggered the immune response in a tobacco plant to a known pathogen.
"It could do this for any plant that is transformable, we think," Hadwiger said.
Hadwiger began his work in the 1960s, but says now is the best time for research. Scientists have sequenced many fungal pathogens, he said, so he doesn't have to find the DNA sequence for a particular gene.
"I don't have a lot of help in the lab," he said. "But there's so many things done previously that I don't need a lot of help or money."
In the meantime, Hadwiger is working on the possibility of proceeding without genetic engineering.
"I try to follow a lot of the people that do cancer research and try the technology they use," he said.
Hadwiger is currently working to see if DNase will induce immunity on potato leaves and has used DNase from a stripe rust fungus, which may work to build immunity in wheat or beans.
He will be seeking additional funding from the Washington Potato Commission and USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.
Hadwiger and USDA Agricultural Research Service plant pathologist James Polashock recently published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Phytopathology.
"It's just background, basic research," Hadwiger said. "For most of my career, people haven't gotten too excited about basic research because they say it will never end up anywhere. Of course, I think it will."