Study shows corn gene provides resistance to multiple diseases

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Researchers at North Carolina State University have found a specific gene in corn that appears to be associated with resistance to three important plant leaf diseases.

NC State plant pathologists and crop scientists pinpoint the gene — glutathione S-transferase — that seems to confer resistance to Southern leaf blight, gray leaf spot and Northern leaf blight, a trio of diseases that cripple corn plants worldwide.

Tomorrow’s varieties

Finding out more about the mechanisms behind complex traits like disease resistance can potentially help plant breeders build the best traits into tomorrow’s corn plants, said Peter Balint-Kurti, a research plant pathologist and geneticist for the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service who works in NC State’s plant pathology and crop science departments.

The NC State researchers joined lead author Randy Wisser, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, and other researchers from the University of Delaware, Cornell University and Kansas State University in examining 300 diverse maize varieties from across the globe.

Most maize varieties are, on average, as different from one another as humans are from chimpanzees.

Using these diverse varieties of corn allowed the researchers to zero in on the regions of the genome responsible for conferring resistance to the three diseases — and thus to varieties that are very resistant to disease.

“We tested the lines for resistance to these three diseases and found that if a line is resistant to one disease, chances are it’s also resistant to the other two,” Balint-Kurti said.

But why?

The researchers then delved into the question of why this multiple resistance occurs.

“One hypothesis was that if a corn variety has resistance genes for one disease, it is likely to also have resistance genes for the others,” Balint-Kurti said.

“The other hypothesis was that the same genes conferred resistance to multiple pathogens. Our evidence suggests that the latter hypothesis is more likely.”

In particular, researchers have developed good evidence that a specific gene, a member of a gene family called glutathione-S-tranferases, is associated with resistance to all three diseases.

Battling blight

Southern corn leaf blight is a moderate problem in the southeastern United States, Balint-Kurti said, and can be a significant problem in Southeast Asia, southern Europe and parts of Africa.

Prevalent in hot, humid climates across the globe, it causes small brown spots on leaves. The spots get larger and eventually spread to the whole plant. Severe infections can cause major corn yield losses.

Northern leaf blight can be found in the Midwestern corn belt; it causes cigar-shaped lesions on leaves.

Gray leaf spot — which produces an eponymous effect — is found both in the Midwest and Southeast.

All three pathogens are so-called necrotrophic fungi, or fungi that kill what they eat.

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