Crop diseases caused by pathogens, viruses and fungi are very costly and can result in significant yield losses for farmers.
Roger Innes, Distinguished Professor of biology at Indiana University Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences, has developed a method to enhance the immune system of plants to detect harmful pathogens in hopes of preventing these losses and to reduce dependence on pesticides.
Innes published a paper in 2021 in the Current Opinion in Biotechnology, a publication by Elsevier, which detailed how global yield losses caused by these diseases average 21.5 percent in wheat, 30 percent in rice, 22.6 percent in maize, 17.2 percent in potato and 21.4 percent in soybean, despite extensive use of pesticides. Foregoing pesticide use can lead to drastic increases in yield loss, but these chemicals add significant costs for farmers and can cause environmental degradation, including contamination of our drinking water. Thus, there is a pressing need to develop alternative methods for controlling crop diseases.
“By enhancing plants’ immune systems to control crop diseases, we can significantly improve crop yields to aid in expanding food supply without having to utilize harmful pesticides,” Innes said.
For the last 30 years, Innes and his team have studied how plants detect pathogens, starting from the observation that some plant varieties display strong resistance to a given pathogen while others do not. Discovering this naturally occurring variation indicated to Innes’ team that there was a difference between varieties that was likely controlled by differences in specific genes.
Investigation of the gene differences between varieties of Arabidopsis (a non-crop plant used for research purposes) led to the discovery of the molecular mechanisms that plants use to detect pathogens. Specifically, the Innes laboratory found that the PBS1 protein of Arabidopsis functions as a sensor to detect damage inside a plant cell caused by an infecting pathogen. By making small adjustments to this PBS1 sensor protein, the Innes lab showed they could extend the ability for plants to detect pathogens and develop resistance to those pathogens.
Importantly, the PBS1 protein family is present in all crop species, and the Innes laboratory has shown that the same approach can be used in soybean, barley and wheat to enhance their disease resistance traits. The Innes laboratory is now focused on engineering disease resistance in soybean and wheat. If successful, this could help prevent billions of dollars in crop losses every year.
Currently, managing plant diseases is difficult due to how quickly plant pathogens evolve, leading to development of pesticide resistant strains. The PBS1-based system being developed by Innes and his team is designed to be durable by targeting recognition of pathogen enzymes that are required for infection, and thus not easily modified by the pathogen.
Ultimately with this method, Innes and his team are aiming to reduce dependence on pesticides which are toxic to humans, especially the farmers applying them, expensive and the cause of significant environmental damages such as increased pollution from runoff during rainstorms.
“This is a multibillion-dollar problem, and our hope is to eliminate the need of pesticides as the plants will now be able to fight off pathogens without assistance,” Innes said.
Innes has a longstanding relationship with the Innovation and Commercialization Office that dates back to 1991 when he submitted his first invention disclosure. The office works closely with faculty, industry and the entrepreneurial community in Indiana to take IU innovations to market.
“ICO has been a wonderful partner with filing patents to protect our intellectual property and with helping us make connections with potential partners,” Innes said.
Bri Heron, technology marketing manager at Indiana University’s Innovation and Commercialization Office, contributed the following story.