Yale Researchers Receive $3.4 Million Grant to Find Natural Genetic Methods of Protecting Crops Against Infectious Plant Diseases

Yale University researchers have received a $3.4 million National Science Foundation grant to find a way of controlling plant diseases using the crops’ own infection-fighting mechanisms rather than pesticides.

“Infectious plant diseases result in multibillion-dollar crop losses each year,” said S.P. Dinesh-Kumar, assistant professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and principal investigator on the study. “Since the world population is expected to double over the next 50 years, increased knowledge of plant genes, genomes and how to manipulate them will greatly aid in feeding this growing population.”

Dinesh-Kumar and his collaborators are particularly interested in plants’ hypersensitive response (HR), which he said is one of their “most powerful weapons” against pathogen attack. The HR is characterized by rapid cell death at the site of infection. Dinesh-Kumar said this cell death response likely benefits the plant by depriving pathogens, among them bacteria, fungi, viruses and nematodes, of access to nutrient source and therefore limiting their proliferation.

The grant will enable Dinesh-Kumar and his collaborators, among them Hongyu Zhao, associate professor of genetics and in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine, to develop and use functional genomics and proteomics tools to understand the molecular mechanisms by which viruses evade the host’s antiviral defenses.

Dinesh-Kumar said the research team will use a fast-forward genetic approach called virus-induced gene silencing (VIGS) and proteomics to identify genes involved in disease resistance and susceptibility. VIGS and RNA interference in animal systems enable researchers to link a gene to its function reliably and quickly by silencing their activity.

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