Helping plants defend themselves

Press release of September 5, 2011

The University of Neuchâtel, with the help of Brigitte Mauch-Mani, plays a dominant role in the study of substances that increase the natural defences of plants. After fifteen years, this researcher has become one of the world’s leading specialists in beta-aminobutyric acid, also known as BABA, which can be applied to plants to induce resistance against diseases or harsh environmental conditions.
We often think of the plant’s immune system as stagnant. This is because we overlook the fact that plants possess several methods of adapting to changing environmental conditions, which are reversible in case the environment reverts to its original state. Specific stimuli regulate whether a plant’s reaction against a pathogenic attack or herbivorous organisms will be quicker or stronger. This is the case with BABA, an amino acid that is part of the arsenal of all respectable biochemical laboratories.
Its ability to induce resistance was first described in 1962. However, it was not until the mid nineties that a handful of international researchers demonstrated its capacity to induce a host of molecular defences such as the production of salicylic or jasmonic acid in response to a wound. Colza, grapevine, maize: many crops are sensitive to it. Brigitte Mauch-Mani, the local organiser of the PR-IR 2011 congress and research director of the laboratory of cell and molecular biology at the University of Neuchâtel, points out that today the amount of known effects is particularly vast. From drought to freezing conditions, as well as excess salt, BABA helps plants to initiate the necessary biochemical reactions in order to survive under severe environmental conditions.  
Several experiments carried out on Arabidopsis thaliana, a common model plant in plant biology, have demonstrated BABA’s wide range of efficiency against all sorts of pathogenic agents: Bacteria, virus, fungi, oomycetes, nematodes and insects.
Unfortunately, despite all of its qualities, BABA has no industrial application: its properties are in the public domain. However, the mechanisms that give a boost to plants remain largely unknown, which has spurred research in order to determine which genes are better activated by the amino acid.
This is the case, for example, with IBI1 that controls the aspartyl-tRNA synthetase enzyme that plays a role in protein synthesis. The BABA induces a longer activation of this gene that is usually only briefly expressed in case of an infection. The amino acid acts on plant genes, rendering the induced resistance innate. Up to what point? That is the question that Jurriaan Ton, of Rothamsted Research, has been asking himself. He is a researcher in England that is continuing the work that he accomplished in Neuchâtel under the guidance of Brigitte Mauch-Mani, who he met during his thesis work at the University of Utrecht under the supervision of Corné J. Pieterse. He will give a talk on this subject on Wednesday September 7 in Neuchâtel.
In total, three European research laboratories pooled their efforts together in order to better understand the resistance mechanisms that induce BABA in plants.


Dr. Brigitte Mauch-Mani
Université de Neuchâtel
Laboratoire de Biologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire
Tel. : +41 32 718 22 05