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Epigenetic Mechanism of Crop Immunity Identified

A global research team has identified specific locations within plants’ chromosomes capable of transferring immunity to their offspring. The findings could lead to new ways of preventing disease in crops.

Published in eLife (, the research identifies four DNA loci that control disease resistance against a common plant pathogen called downy mildew. This resistance was not associated with any negative effects on growth or resistance against other environmental stresses.

Dr Ritushree Jain of La Trobe University said that when plants are repetitively attacked by pathogens, they develop a memory of this encounter that enables them to fight efficiently when attacked again. “One of the mechanisms for transferring this ‘memory’ to their next generation via seeds is DNA methylation,” Jain said. “It is an epigenetic phenomenon – meaning there is no change in the DNA sequence. Not only could this significant discovery lead to new ways of preventing disease in important crops, but it could also help reduce our reliance on pesticides.”

Lead researcher Prof Jurriaan Ton of the University of Sheffield said findings from the study pave the way for further research into how epigenetics can help to improve disease resistance in food crops. “We now hope to use this study to carry out further research to understand how these epigenetic loci control so many different defence genes,” Ton said.

“We are also keen to participate in more translational studies, in order to find out whether epigenetics can be used to prime disease resistance in crops that are vital to food supplies around the world.”