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Rewiring plant defence genes to reduce crop waste

Posted on 19 June 2018

A new study suggests plants could be genetically rewired to resist the devastating effects of disease, significantly reducing crop waste worldwide.

A fungal pathogen infecting a plant. Image credit: Professor Katherine Denby, University of York.

Researchers at the University of York have teamed up with colleagues from the Warwick Integrative Synthetic Biology Centre (WISBC) to develop a genetic control system that would enable plants to strengthen their defence response against deadly pathogens so they can remain healthy and productive.

When pathogens attack crop plants, they obtain energy and nutrients from the plant but also target the plant’s immune response, weakening their defences and making the plants more vulnerable.


The research group simulated a pathogen attack in Arabidopsis plants, and modelled a way to rewire the plants’ gene network, creating a defensive feedback control system to combat disease.

Just as an aircraft’s autopilot control system detects disturbances like wind gusts or turbulence and acts to reject them, this new plant control system detects a pathogen attack and prevents the pathogen weakening the plants’ defence response.

This method could render crops more resilient against disease, helping mitigate crop wastage throughout the world. Since the system can be implemented by re-wiring plants’ natural defence mechanisms, no external genetic circuitry needs to be added.


Professor Katherine Denby, from the Department of Biology at the University of York, said: “Minimising crop waste is obviously an essential part of creating a more sustainable food system. What is exciting here is applying engineering principles to plant biology to predict how to re-design plant gene regulation to enhance disease resistance. We use re-wiring of existing genes in the plant to prevent pathogen manipulation.”

Declan Bates, Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Warwick’s School of Engineering, said: “Disease, drought and extreme temperatures cause significant yield losses in crop plants all over the globe, threatening world food security. It is therefore crucial to explore new ways to develop crops that are resilient to pathogen attacks and can maintain yields in challenging environments. This study shows the enormous potential of using feedback control to strengthen plants’ natural defense mechanisms.”

The next steps of the research will be to take the theory into the lab, and experimentally implement the defensive feedback control system in plants.

A Framework for Engineering Stress Resilient Plants Using Genetic Feedback Control and Regulatory Network Rewiring, is published in ACS Synthetic Biology, a journal of the American Chemical Society.


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About this research

This research was carried out by Professor Katherine Denby  from the Department of Biology in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Warwick. 

A Framework for Engineering Stress Resilient Plants Using Genetic Feedback Control and Regulatory Network Rewiring, is published in ACS Synthetic Biology, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

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