Corn defenses probed for new pest-fighting clues

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A clearer picture of corn’s biochemical responses to insect and fungal attacks is emerging, thanks to new findings by Agricultural Research Service scientists in Gainesville, Florida.

On one front, a team led by ARS plant physiologists Eric Schmelz and Alisa Huffaker has identified 10 compounds in corn, kauralexins and zealexins, which rapidly accumulate at fungal infection sites, impeding the microbes’ spread. Kauralexins and zealexins are also partly triggered by insect chewing—with the European corn borer among the species that find them distasteful.

On another front, Huffaker led the discovery of a new peptide (protein) in corn, ZmPep1, that’s produced in response to fungal infection. In addition to serving as a sort of “call to arms,” the peptide helps the plant mount a timely counter-offense.

Taken together, the discoveries add significantly to the existing body of knowledge on corn’s stress-coping mechanisms and set the stage for novel approaches to improving its insect and disease resistance.

Read the full article in the January 2012 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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