ISU researcher to help plants fight fungal diseases

The project received a $2.5 million grant

An Iowa State University faculty member is leading a project that aims to improve a crop’s ability to fight off fungal diseases.

Roger Wise, a research geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a collaborating professor in the ISU department of plant pathology and microbiology, is leading the four-year project, which received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We’re really excited about it,” Wise said. “It took about a year to coordinate all the partners, go through peer review, and actually obtain the funds.”

Wise is working with researchers from Cornell University, Indiana University and the University of Florida to study the molecular interactions between a host plant and fungal pathogen.

Research will focus on how powdery mildew — a fungus that causes disease in about 100 different species of plants — affects barley and wheat at the molecular level. The powdery mildew fungus can reduce crop yields by as much as 40 percent, Wise said.

Other closely related powdery mildew fungi infect a variety of crops and plants, including squash, beans, strawberries, grapes, roses, and apple and oak trees.

“Whenever a plant encounters a pathogen, there is a massive reprogramming of the plant’s survival mechanisms,” Wise said. “The host plant could be sitting there happily in the sunlight, with its genes working to make proteins required for normal growth.”

But when a pathogen attempts to parasitize the host, the crop is reprogrammed to do new things to defend itself, he said.

“So you’ve got thousands of genes doing things they wouldn’t do under optimal conditions,” he said.

By identifying the molecular components that make crops susceptible or resistant to the fungus, Wise said that breeders can produce desirable traits or eliminate harmful ones in plants in the long run.

The researchers also will work internationally with scientists at universities and research institutions in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The European partners are studying non-host resistance, Wise said. “So there is considerable overlap,” he added.

A joint grant from the European Research Area’s Coordinating Action in Plant Sciences program pushes the total funding to around $5.5 million.

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