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March 1, 2023


Biochemists from the University of California, Berkeley, have learned about the fungal enzyme that causes blast disease. New fungicides would reduce the substantial annual losses of rice and other susceptible crops.

Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation

Rice is the primary staple in the diet of more than half of the world's population according to the USDA. And when you're feeding that many people, you want to ensure as much of your harvest makes it to the table as possible. Every year, between 10 and 35% of rice crops are lost to blast disease, effectively taking rice off the table for an estimated 60 million people. But biochemists are working on solutions in the U.S. National Science Foundation's "Discovery Files."

Blast Disease is caused by a fungus called Magnaporthe oryzae, which attacks and kills rice plants around the globe. With support from NSF, biochemists from University of California, Berkeley, have discovered that the fungus secretes an enzyme called a PMO, that weakens the tough outer layers of rice leaves allowing the fungus to punch holes in leaf surfaces letting the fungus inside where it grows until it kills the plant.

Because the fungal enzyme is secreted onto the surface of the rice leaf, a simple spray could be effective in destroying the enzyme's ability to gain entry to the plant.

These Biochemists are now screening chemicals to find ones that block the enzyme, with plans for developing a spray-on fungicide that would work well against similar enzymes that attack other crops.

This foundational research would reach beyond protecting rice crops to potentially protecting the harvests of cereal grains such as wheat and barley, as well as other major crops that face similar fungal attacks such as lettuce, grapes, and tomatoes.

To hear more science and engineering news, including the researchers making it, subscribe to "NSF's Discovery Files" podcast.

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