Discovering plant tolerance mechanisms for crop protection through virus diversity

Senast ändrad: 15 september 2020

Anders Hafrén

The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) define the areas of development that are considered most critical for us to be able to ensure the continued positive development of society on a global level. Altogether, the 17 goals concern our societal structures from a diverse perspective, where my research most clearly focuses on what is called SDG 2 - "zero hunger". The overall goal of my research is to understand the mechanisms that plants use to tolerate harmful conditions, such as different types of stress and disease. This involves initial adaptive responses by the plant to prevailing stress, but also the ability to effectively recover and continue production when conditions return to more favorable. Thus, the foremost keywords describing my research is plant disease and stress tolerance as well as plant resilience. Increased knowledge of these processes may turn out essential for us to be able to adapt important plants such as crops against damage caused by diseases and the ongoing climate change, to ensure the production of food and biomaterials in the future.

At present, knowledge of the genetic basis and the molecular mechanisms that determine plant resilience is deficient. A central part of my research therefore focuses on identifying key genes and cellular processes that affect stress tolerance, by specifically examining how our model plant thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) reacts when infected with different types of viruses. A key point is that pathogenic viruses cause great damage and stress to plants during infection, while the spread of virus benefits from the plant remaining in good vigor. Moreover, several of the general plant stress responses also contribute to immunity against viral infections. My hypothesis is thus that viruses through evolution have developed a capacity to utilize and manipulate plant tolerance and resilience mechanisms for their own benefit; keep the plant alive but avoid immune responses. Importantly, since viruses mainly undergo individual evolution, a starting point of my research is that different viruses will show a great deal of mechanistic versatility in their strategies for affecting plant tolerance and can thus be used as tools for studying stress tolerance mechanisms in plants.

The research field of virology (agronomy and medicine) has traditionally focused on studying one specific viral disease at a time. I predict, however, that important progress can be made through parallel studies of several different viruses, through so-called "comparative virology". In addition to the mechanistic diversity of plant resilience modulation offered by virus diversity, comparative virology establishes important grounds for understanding viral disease concepts and mechanisms at a more general level. One of the high-value outcomes of comparative virology would be the discovery and development of broad-spectrum virus protection strategies. Taken together, I am convinced that virus diversity-anchored research will lay a strong ground for studying the extensive interaction between plants and viruses, and the mechanisms that govern plant resilience and adaptability, working towards a sustainable future within UN´s SDG 2.