Al Ain: Researchers in the UAE have found a genetic solution to boost plants’ resistance against a major fungal disease and reduce dependence on environmentally harmful pesticides.

These findings are the result of a research project carried out by Suad Ajeb, an MSc student at the UAE University (UAEU), and have recently been published in Molecular Plant Pathology — an international scientific journal. The research was supervised by Dr Synan Abu Qamar, Assistant Professor at the UAEU’s Department of Biology.

A UAEU spokesperson said plants fight to survive environmental stresses, including plant pathogens.

“Botrytis cinerea is considered the second most important fungal pathogen that causes diseases in a wide range of crops and negatively affects the agribusiness,” he said.

Plants use cell walls as a barrier against pathogen attack. The spokesperson said that the focus of researchers’ concern had been expansins, the agents responsible for loosening the cell wall and giving it elasticity.

With the increasing call by the public to limit chemical use on plants and the ineffectiveness of fungicides due to resistance developed by Botrytis cinerea, Dr Abu Qamar’s research team began studying genetic resistance to provide a sustainable alternative to chemical control.

The team tried to understand the mechanisms that control plant defence to a sum of biotic and abiotic stresses and found removing the Expansin-like A2 gene (also known as EXLA2 mutation) reduced the susceptibility to Botrytis cinerea in a plant.

Dr Abu Qamar said the team has found that the EXLA2 mutant is not only resistant to Botrytis cinerea, but also to another economic threat, the fungus Alternaria brassicicola.

“So far, the laboratory has generated several mutations in genes for a highly effective solution against this nasty fungus,” he said.

“We showed that the EXLA2 mutant also showed enhanced sensitivity towards increased salt and cold, and this sensitivity required a functional abscisic acid pathway,” he added.