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Researchers Discover a New Way to Protect Crops from Disease

Researchers Discover a New Way to Protect Crops from Disease

A consortium of researchers recently combined their expertise to join the fight against plant pathogenic fungi

University of Exeter

Pathogenic fungi pose a huge and growing threat to global food security.

Currently, we protect our crops against fungal disease by spraying them with anti-fungal chemistries, also known as fungicides. However, the growing threat of microbial resistance against these chemistries requires continuous development of new fungicides.

A consortium of researchers from the University of Exeter, led by Gero Steinberg, combined their expertise to join the fight against plant pathogenic fungi.

In a recent publication, in the scientific journal Nature Communications, they report the identification of novel mono-alkyl chain lipophilic cations (MALCs) in protecting crops against Septoria tritici blotch in wheat and rice blast disease.

These diseases challenge temperate-grown wheat and rice, respectively, and so jeopardize the security of our two most important calorie crops.

The scientists' journey started with the discovery that MALCs inhibit the activity of fungal mitochondria.

Mitochondria are the cellular "power-house," required to provide the "fuel" for all essential processes in the pathogen.

By inhibiting an essential pathway in mitochondria, MALCs cut down the cellular energy supply, which eventually kills the pathogen.

Whilst Steinberg and colleagues show that this "mode of action" is common to the various MALCs tested, and effective against plant pathogenic fungi, one MALC that they synthesized and named C18-SMe2+ showed unexpected additional modes of action.

Firstly, C18-SMe2+ generates aggressive molecules inside the mitochondria, which target life-essential fungal proteins, and in turn initiate a "self-destruction" program, which ultimately results in "cellular suicide" of the fungus.


Related Article: How Synthetic Biology Can Improve Agriculture


Secondly, when applied to crop plants, C18-SMe2+ "alerts" the plant defense system, which prepares the crop for subsequent attack, thereby increasing the armory of the plant against the intruder.

Most importantly, the Exeter researchers demonstrate that C18-SMe2+ shows no toxicity to plants and is less toxic to aquatic organisms and human cells than existing fungicides sprayed used in the field today.

Zymoseptoria tritici, the cause of Septoria tritici in wheat, treated with C18-SMe2+.
University of Exeter

Steinberg said: "It is the combined approach of Exeter scientists, providing skills in fungal cell biology (myself, Dr. Martin Schuster), fungal plant pathology (Sarah J. Gurr), human cell biology (Michael Schrader) and synthetic chemistry (Dr. Mark Wood) that enabled us to develop and characterize this potent chemistry.

"The University has filed a patent (GB 1904744.8), in recognition of the potential of this novel chemistry in our perpetual fight against fungi.

"We now seek partners/investors to take this development to the field and prove its usefulness under 'real agricultural conditions.' Our long-term aim is to foster greater food security, in particular in developing nations."

Steinberg added: "I always wanted to apply my research outside of the ivory tower of academia and combine the fundamental aspects of my work with a useful application.

The visionary approach of the Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) provided me with this opportunity, for which I am very grateful. In my mind, this project is a strong example of translational research that benefits the public."

Gurr said: "This is such a timely and important study. We are increasingly aware of the growing burden of plant disease caused by fungi and of our need to safeguard our calorie and commodity crops better. The challenge is not only to discover and describe the mode of action of new antifungals but to ensure that chemistries potent against fungi do not harm plants, wildlife, or human health.

This new antifungal is thus an exciting discovery and its usefulness may extend beyond crops into the realms of fungal disease in humans and, indeed to various applications in the paint and preservative industries. This merits investment!"

- This press release was originally published on the University of Exeter website