Researchers discover hormone that could boost plant immune systems

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Gregg Howe (view larger image)

The discovery of a hormone acting like molecular glue could hold a key to bolstering plant immune systems and understanding how plants cope with environmental stress.

The study, featured in theOct. 6 issue of the journal Nature, reveals how the plant hormone jasmonate binds two proteins together to trigger plant immunity.

“This is the first molecular view of how plants ward off attacks by insects and pathogens,” said MABR biochemistry and molecular biology scientist Gregg Howe, who worked with fellow MABR researcher Sheng Yang He on the study.

The study, by Howe and He, is a collaboration between the MSU-Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory and the University of Washington.

“Jasmonate appears to act as molecular glue that sticks two proteins together,” Howe said. “That binding sets off a chain of events leading to the immune response. Determining the structure of the receptor solves a big missing piece of the puzzle.”

Now that researchers understand the structure, they can design new hormone derivatives or other small molecules that can trigger a desired response. Such compounds could help to increase agricultural productivity by aiding plants in resisting bugs and diseases, he added.

The Nature study shows that plants and animals use fundamentally different mechanisms to perceive this type of fatty acid-derived hormone. Humans have prostaglandin hormones, which are structurally similar to jasmonates and also play a role in immune responses. So this study may hold potential benefits for humans as well.

“Plants offer a rich opportunity to understand basic biological processes that are relevant to human health,” Howe said. “The new structural insight into jasmonate perception could have practical applications in medicine, including the design of drugs that stick two proteins together.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy, and supported by the MABR.

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