Published 2/25/20 in The Daily Record

Researchers at the Rockville-based Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR)  received a $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to advance the understanding of how fungi like powdery mildew infect plants including food source crops and how plants fight back.

Dr. Shunyuan Xiao, a professor in the department of plant sciences and landscape architecture at te University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, is the principal investigator on the award.

Some fungi and organisms called oomycetes grow by absorbing nutrients from a host plant. They penetrate their host using a root-like structure called a haustorium. The ability of these pathogens to infect crops depends entirely on the proper function and performance of their haustoria.

RPW8 (in green) is targeted to the host-pathogen interface to kill fungal hautoria. (Submitted photo)

Xiao’s lab is pioneering research that is geared towards better understanding the haustorium. With support from the NSF, his group plans to identify and study proteins located at the host-pathogen interface (i.e. the battleground) where the haustorium contacts the host plant, using a system consisting of the model plant Arabidopsis and a powdery mildew named Gc-UCSC1. One known factor Xiao’s lab identified is a plant resistance protein named RPW8.2, which Xiao describes as a “missile-like defense mechanism evolved in plants to fight haustorium-based invasion.”

In collaboration with Dr. Ning Zheng, from the University of Washington, Xiao’s group will work to solve the structure of RPW8.2 to further understand how it works. The Xiao lab will also use RPW8.2 as a unique tool to identify new factors from the host plant and/or the pathogen that may make a host more or less susceptible to infection. The project’s goal is to enable more effective control measures of fungal diseases of crop plants.

Initial funding for Dr. Xiao’s research was provided through a seed grant from the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership: MPowering the State, a program designed to leverage the strengths and missions of the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.