Nearly all crop species have significant problems with disease. Farmers often rely on chemical controls that can be expensive, have negative impacts on the environment, and pose risks to the safety of farm workers, nearby communities, and consumers. Rather than relying on chemicals to control plant pathogens, we can use crop varieties that are immune to disease. Unfortunately, in many cases disease-resistant varieties are not available. We are working on discovering plant disease resistance traits that can be used to develop disease-resistant crop varieties.
We use a bioprospecting approach to identify plant immune receptors with activity against target pathogen species. Specific proteins, polysaccharides, or other factors from a pathogen can activate these receptor proteins. Once activated, an immune receptor will trigger a defense response, which typically protects the plant. The identification of immune receptor proteins with activity against particular pathogen species enables the development of new crop varieties with resistance against those pathogens.
So far, we’ve identified three new immune receptor proteins with activity against bacterial pathogens and have developed a disease-resistant tomato variety. This disease-resistant tomato is immune from several bacterial pathogens, eliminating the need for environmentally harmful applications of copper-containing bactericides. We are expanding the platform to fungal pathogens and are interested in commercial partners to further develop this technology.