Viral invaders are a plant’s phantom menace. Leaving characteristic fingerprints—mosaic mottling or ringspot stamps—viruses can inflict severe deformities on their plant victims. Groundbreaking research at OSU has revealed that plants fight back by muzzling the genetic code of the invading virus.
Research by James Carrington and others at OSU’s Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing helped crack open plant genomes to reveal a secret command center at work, masterminded by tiny forms of RNA molecules within the cell. Working with the plant equivalent of the lab rat—a mustard known as Arabidopsis—this research has not only accelerated the advances in plant research, but could help speed the discovery of potential disease therapies in humans as well.
“Gene silencing is the basis of the plant’s immune system against a virus,” said Carrington. “And, like immunization that we use in humans to protect against disease-causing viruses, we can use gene silencing to pre-program plants to resist viruses.” These and other discoveries related to small RNAs garnered the distinction of “scientific breakthrough of the year” by Science magazine in 2002.