Do plants have immunity?

05 September 2009

Question

Do plants have immunity to viruses and bacteria?

Answer

John Carr from the Department of Plant and Sciences at the University of Cambridge:John - Most microbes like bacteria, fungi, and viruses can't infect the plant. But some through evolution, have gained the ability to break down the initial barriers to infection such as cell walls and so on and these can cause disease. Now in response the plants have evolved the ability to respond to and recognize particular types of pathogens. So, that's why some plants have resistance genes and these is a sort of genetic mechanism of allowing them to pass on the ability to fight off particular diseases. Now when this occurs, you might find that the cells which are initially infected with a virus or a bacteria or fungus actually commit suicide. And this is one way of creating a kind of a scorch earth against the pathogen but also it's a way of creating signals, lots more interesting chemicals that float out through the plant tissue. Sometimes plants will produce salicylic acid, it is the parent compound of aspirin and it is a very, very powerful inducer of resistance. So if plants are producing salicylic acid, they are better able to fight off perhaps the first pathogen to attack them unremarkably they're able to fight off possibly lots of other types of pathogen as well. So salicylic acid itself aspirin like compound can give rise to something they call methyl salicylate and this can float off to other plants and influence other plants so they become more resistant.Jonathan Jones, Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich:Jonathan - Hi, I am Jonathan Jones. I worked at Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. Humans have two kinds of immune system, they've got the innate immune system, which recognize molecules that pathogens can help making like flagellum of bacteria for example. And they've got the adaptive immune system which involves antibodies and that's what is triggered when you immunize against viruses for example. Plants and many others sort of less sophisticated organisms have only an innate immune system. They can recognize molecules and pathogens and activate defense. The defense components involve making a sort of bleach - an active oxygen cocktail that inhibits microbes and can culminate in cell death. They also in plants make a lot of anti-microbial proteins that inhibit growth of microbes but also many pathogens squirt proteins into plants cells, to shut down that immune system. And then there's another immune system involving proteins inside the plant cell that recognizes when these molecules show up inside the plant cell and activate defense.

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