Plant Defense Signaling: How is this related to good medicine?

Botrytis cinerea growing on a PDA
Botrytis cinerea growing on a PDA (Wikipedia)

Plants make numerous small molecules (metabolites) that are either directly toxic to insects, grazing animals, fungi and bacteria, or that stimulate the production of other toxic metabolites. The production of various types of metabolites such as alkaloids, terpenes, and phenolics can be turned on (induced) after damage to the plant occurs. The control mechanisms involve  jasmonate, salicylate, phytohormone (plant hormone) ethylene, the volatile (gaseous) methyljasmonate and methylsalicylate signaling pathways.

The signal process is complex. It works on a local level or systemically by traveling throughout the entire plant. It behaves like a network, allowing chemical communication between parts of a plant or within a population of plants in a given locale. With recent developments in metabolic profiling, highly sensitive separation and detection systems are used to create metabolite profiles, high-throughput gene expression analysis is used to detect genes transcripts and rigorous statistical mining resulted in some interesting data that reveals more about how plant defense signaling is controlled.

Researchers used metabolic profiling of overall patterns rather than relying on targeted metabolites. This is important, since previous work focused on a few major metabolites and provided conflicting data. They found differences in profiles from plants exposed to generalist insect feeders versus plants treated with phytohormones. Although both jasmonate and salicylate pathways were activated in each treatment (co-induced), the metabolite patterns were distinct; both treatments lead to a stronger localized rather than systemic response; and there appeared to be a great deal of cross-talk between both pathways influencing pools of precursor metabolites.

Botrytis cinerea growing on tomato leaf
Botrytis cinerea growing on tomato leaf

Another study followed the spatial accumulation of hydroxycinnamates (phenylpropanoids) and lignins in cell walls of Arabidopsis (a model organism) in response to changes in the ethylene signaling induced by the necrotrophic fungal pathogen, Botrytis cinerea. They correlated metabolic profiles with cytological (cell based) changes to provide biological validation of the analytical data.

When a fungus like Botrytis attacks a plant, it generally destroys cells and eventually the entire plant. In the presence of the fungus, plant genes for the biosynthesis of phenylpropanoids and lignins are expressed (turned on) to modify and reinforce the plant cell wall against fungal penetration. Botrytis induces over 30 ethylene regulated transcription factors – cellular molecules that target and induce underlying genes to become active. So these researchers used a metabolite profile of 3 ethylene mutants, plants that had gene mutations at different DNA sequence points of the ethylene signaling pathway.

It turned out that the mutant plants were less resistant to the fungus and that ethylene resistance, when present, appeared after the fungus had made contact with the plant cell wall and had begun to build the structures necessary to penetrate the cell wall barrier. One phenylpropanoid metabolite in particular, ferulate, seemed to be highly influenced by ethylene signaling. Ferulate cross-links the polymer strands of cell wall polysaccharides, enhancing their structural integrity as a barrier.

So what does this have to do with good medicine? Don’t focus on one or two metabolites to make an efficacious extract. Despite what you hear, we are not trying to mimic “magic bullet” medicine. Expose plants to a full set of ecological challenges to produce a metabolite profile of greater diversity. Mono-crop farming doesn’t cut it. Damn if those hippies had it right after all.

Good Wine, Good Fungi

A study of organic soils found that the those associated with organic gardening compared to conventional methods or native grasslands, was very similar in types and diversity of mycorrhizal fungal taxa to that of the native soils. Increasingly, viticulturalists have been promoting the sustainability of using organic techniques over the fungicide heavy approaches of conventional wine management practices, and that this fundamental investment in “terroir” makes better wine. One method is to restore the density and diversity of beneficial, symbiotic fungi in the vineyard soil. These fungi are seriously depleted in soils that have had extensive chemical fertilizers, fungicides or pesticides applied.

Mycorrhizal inoculum applied to new vines plantings and as a dressing to cover crop used to improve nitrogen availability in vineyard soils, associates with the vine roots and  increases both the available levels of organic carbon and the water holding capacity of the surrounding soils. And with healthy vines, and a biological approach to vineyard management in place, the rhizosphere community rich in mycorrhizal fungi can influence the quality of wine produced. 

Gabriele et al. (2016) investigated the effect of mycorrhizal inoculation of various Sangiovese wine grapes. The symbiotic relationships improved the oxidative stability, thus the potential ability of the wine to age, and increased 14 polyphenols compared to un-inoculated plants. The later effect may improve the structure and the flavor profile of the wine.

I’ve asked to join the downstream portion of the research team to investigate the impact of these changes on the consumers experience.

It’s in the Dirt

Arbuscular mycorrhiza seen under microscope. F...
Image via Wikipedia

Well, dirt plus nutrient content. Organic farmers know that it’s really about the soil. In particular, the “living” component of the soil. Researchers are now catching up with findings that help explain why soils on organic farms and in native woodland ecologies have greater concentrations of fungal spores in the soil and greater levels fungal colonization of plant roots – particularly the symbiotic or helpful fungi.

Mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, each exchanging benefits with the other. The plant gains phosphorous from the extended “root-like” threads of fungal hyphae, while the fungi absorb glucose stored in plant root cells, which was originally metabolized (made) by the plant during photosynthesis. Additional benefits these fungi provide the plants include enhanced disease resistance, soil stability and structure, as well as nitrogen fixation.

However, the fungus cannot be cultivated in the absence of a host plant root. Commercial farming often suffers from dead soil. The USDA’s Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) focuses research on the use of mycorrhizal fungi to improve crop quality and yield. Researchers at this facility try to understand the necessary chemical signal exchanged between plant and fungus required during the various stages of fungal development. Their aim is to grow the fungus on artificial media without the presence of plant roots. Because of the numerous benefits that mycorrhizal fungi provide, commercial farmers hope that a fungal inoculum could then be used to limit the amount of fertilizers applied to large scale crops while still improving plant growth and health.

I’ll come back to the way plant and fungus woo each other, whispering sweet chemical cross talk…