Researchers find way to stop spread of devastating rice fungus

London: Scientists have discovered a way to stop the spread of rice blast, a fungus that destroys up to 30 per cent of the world’s rice crop each year.

The researchers found that chemical genetic inhibition of a single protein in the fungus stops it from spreading inside a rice leaf — leaving it trapped within a single plant cell.

The finding, published in the journal Science, could mark a major advance in understanding rice blast, a disease that is hugely important in terms of global food security.

The research revealed how the fungus can manipulate and then squeeze through natural channels (called plasmodesmata) that exist between plant cells.

“This is an exciting breakthrough because we have discovered how the fungus is able to move stealthily between rice cells, evading recognition by the plant immune system,” said senior author Professor Nicholas Talbot of the University of Exeter in Britain.

“It is clearly able to suppress immune responses at pit fields (groups of plasmodesmata), and also regulate its own severe constriction to squeeze itself through such a narrow space,” Talbot said.

“And all this is achieved by a single regulatory protein. It’s a remarkable feat,” he added.

However, the scientists caution that this is a “fundamental” discovery — not a cure that can yet be applied outside the laboratory.

Rice blast threatens global food security, destroying enough rice each year to feed 60 million people.

It spreads within rice plants by invasive hyphae (branching filaments) which break through from cell to cell.

In their bid to understand this process, the researchers used chemical genetics to mutate a signalling protein to make it susceptible to a specific drug.

The protein, PMK1, is responsible for suppressing the rice’s immunity and allowing the fungus to squeeze through pit fields. So, by inhibiting it, the researchers were able to trap the fungus within a cell.

This level of precision led the team to discover that just one enzyme, called a MAP kinase, was responsible for regulating the invasive growth of rice blast.

The research team hope this discovery will enable them to identify targets of this enzyme and thereby determine the molecular basis of this devastating disease.