The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded Dr Ksenia Krasileva, group leader at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) and the Earlham Institute (EI), a €1.5M starting grant (over five years) to investigate the immune system of our most important crops. Her research into plants' immune system could create new genetic solutions for protecting plant health and future sustainable crop production.
Fungal diseases and highly virulent plant pathogens endanger global production of food crops, considerably reducing yields. They can be fought with fungicides and pesticides, yet these substances are not always safe for humans and the environment.
Plants, however, have their own ability to detect and disarm rapidly evolving pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, insects and fungi. Their powerful defence mechanisms rely on a particularly rich arsenal of plant immune receptors.
Among these receptors, NLR-IDs are proteins which have proliferated for at least 500 million years and serve as ‘baits’ for pathogen molecules. Dr Krasileva and her group will investigate how these receptors diversify in maize, rice and wheat, using this genetic information to help generate new methods to protect plants from pests and disease.
Dr Krasileva, said: “We propose to combine powerful next generation sequencing and bioinformatics methods, as well as molecular biology techniques, in order to unravel how the grasses can keep-up with ever-persistent diseases, and eventually generate new ways that our most vital crops can withstand them.
“Through firstly identifying how plant disease receptors have diversified within the genomes of the grasses, to then unravelling the mechanisms by which they work, we can then use this knowledge and apply engineering to plant breeding - in order to keep our fields healthy and stave-off the tide of disease-causing pests that ravage our crop yields and threaten global food security.”
Plants are not so dissimilar from humans, where they are similarly affected by a range of diseases, parasites and pests. Though they lack white blood cells, plants do have an immune system - which lies coded within DNA, the blueprint of life.
Within this blueprint lies information that allows plants to generate receptors that can recognise molecules produced by pests and disease-causing organisms.
Each year a limited number of ERC grants are awarded to researchers, based in European research institutions, who show great promise and submit outstanding research proposals. The aim of the ERC starting grant is to encourage young researchers to stay in Europe, to create excellent new teams which bring energy and new ideas to their disciplines and to support their transition to become the EU’s next generation of research leaders.