A potential revolution in plant disease prevention

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Lactonase is a commonly occurring enzyme. With a small genetic tweak, it could start a revolution in agriculture by replacing chemical crop protection treatments in a way that arrests the evolution of bacteria that cause plant infection.

Prof. Sadowsky leads the lactonase research project

Two researchers spent a day at MN Ag Expo, held in January, to tell farmers about the investigation into this enzyme. It’s a project supported by the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council and the investment by the state’s growers in the corn check-off.

Diseases like Goss’s Wilt are caused by bacteria. As part of its reproductive cycle, bacteria create a biofilm that allows them to communicate to other members of the colony when they should reproduce. In the case of Goss’s, this leads to large lesions forming on the corn leaf, to devastating effect on the plant’s ability to thrive. Losses on the order of 60 bushels an acre have been recorded.

The standard treatment for Goss’s Wilt is fungicide. While this can be very effective, it also can accelerate the process of evolutionary selection, and lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to the chemical control.

“This new technology uses an enzyme that shuts down the communication among the bacterial cells,” said University of Minnesota researcher Austin Schachtner. “The biggest takeaway is that this technology does not kill the bacteria, so it doesn’t allow for that selection process to occur, which is how antibiotic resistance happens. This is really the biggest innovation.”

The discovery process began right in the farm field. Scientists examined fields where bacterial infection was present, and then tested plants that remained unaffected. Lactonase, an enzyme produced by bacteria themselves, appeared to be the common denominator. It’s a substance found in water, soil and throughout the natural environment, and one that could be applied to plants to potentially stop bacterial diseases in their tracks.

“We engineered (the enzyme) so that it could be used on corn and any other plant,” said Qian Zhang. He and Schachtner are with the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Minnesota. They are working under the direction of Prof. Mike Sadowsky, in the Department of Soil, Water & Climate. The research group is seeking patents on the technology.

Zhang said, “We have tested it on many plants. Currently, we are focusing on corn, but it can be used for other plants like soy beans, potatoes. This is very environmentally friendly. It can degrade in the environment and it doesn’t upset the environment, and it is perfectly edible.”

The hope is that this technology, developed in Minnesota, will soon be available to help Minnesota farmers.

“The Minnesota Corn Growers are very excited about this emerging technology,” said Paul Meints, senior director of research for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “This would provide farmers protection from bacteria that are known to cause plant diseases in our region.”

The corn check-off supports research that investigates the development of value-added products, the management of corn inputs, topics related to ethanol use, the evaluation of genetic traits, and the relationship between agricultural management practices and water quality. Learn more about corn-farmer funded research here.

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