Science & Tech

Mustard shows backbone in its own defense

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Plants, vertebrates appear to share elements of innate immune system

Over the past few years, accumulated evidence from many scientists suggests that plants, animals, and insects share common elements in their innate skirmishes with potential pathogens. In the Feb. 28, 2002 issue of the journal Nature, plant scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard and their colleagues have reported another striking similarity. The researchers identified the step-by-step process from the sentry guarding the cell perimeter to the deployment of the defensive immune mechanisms. The details from danger signal to action were worked out in isolated cells of the mustard Arabidopsis thaliana. Jen Sheen, Harvard Medical School associate professor of genetics and senior author of the Nature paper, predicts the research may eventually lead to ways to engineer plants that are more resistant to diverse pathogens. The Nature paper is the first publication from a $4.5 million, five-year grant to Sheen and Fred Ausubel, HMS professor of genetics, from the National Science Foundation’s plant genome program, a new series of grants designed to promote and fund long-term genomics research projects.