The immune system of plants can be unstable in the face of rapidly evolving micro-organisms, and pathogens that can evade recognition can spread with alarming speed through a plant population. In this article in Microbiology Today, Gail Preston and Dawn Arnold ask, what is the reason for this inherent instability, and how can disease control be improved?
Plants, unlike animals, lack an adaptive immune system that allows them to recognize and defend against novel pathogenic micro-organisms. Instead they rely on a heritable, innate immune system in which plant receptors recognize the presence or activity of microbial molecules known as elicitors. Plants exposed to infection can increase the effectiveness of their immune system by increasing the speed and strength of their defence mechanisms. However, pathogens that have the ability to evade recognition can spread rapidly through plant populations. The instability of receptor-dependent resistance in the face of rapid microbial evolution creates one of the most fundamental challenges in plant breeding. In this article we discuss why receptordependent resistance breaks down in the face of pathogen evolution and consider whether knowledge of pathogen evolution can provide insights to improve disease control.