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Study reveals a secret to the success of notorious, disease-causing microbes
Date:7/22/2010

A study published in the July 23 issue of Cell identifies the mechanism used by several types of common, virulent microbes to infect plants and cause devastating blights. Microbes using this infection mechanism include fungi that are currently causing wheat rust epidemics in Africa and Asia, and a class of parasitic algae, called oomycetes, that resulted in the Irish potato blight of the 19th Century. These microbes remain an agricultural scourge today.

The researchers also found evidence suggesting that fungi and oomycetes might infect humans and animals through the same newly-discovered mechanism as they use to infect plants. Human diseases caused by fungi include valley fever and several infections common to AIDS patients. In addition, in water environments, oomycetes cause destructive diseases in people and animals. For example, they attack the legs, eyes and brains of rice farmers in Southeast Asia, and they destroy spawning salmon.

"Our findings suggest broad new strategies for combating the most damaging diseases of the world's major food crops, including wheat, rice, maize and potatoes, as well as several nasty human diseases," said Brett Tyler of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, Va.--the leader of the study.

The infection mechanism

According to the Tyler team's study--which was funded by the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture--once a fungus or an oomycete comes into contact with a host, it may initiate an infection by secreting a special protein, called an effector, into spaces between the host's cells. (See illustration.) Each fungal and oomycete effector consists of a long chain of amino acids. Most of this chain is designed to disable a host cell's immune system. However, a small stretch of it, which contains four particular amino acids, binds to a specific type of lipid; this lipid is
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Contact: Lily Whiteman
lwhitema@nsf.gov
703-292-8310
National Science Foundation
Source:Eurekalert

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