Plant pathologist earns grant to study fungal growth in rice cells

Rich Wilson
Richard Wilson, associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at UNL, has earned a $570,000 grant to study the fungus that causes rice blast disease.

October 4, 2016

Lincoln, Neb. — Richard Wilson, associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln has earned a $570,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae, which causes rice blast disease. Rice blast is a global food security threat that causes a 10 to 30 percent reduction in annual rice yields.

Plants generally have robust defense systems that combat pathogens. Wilson’s lab research will examine how the fungus M. oryzae has been able to overcome those defenses and grow within rice cells. He will be searching for identifiable differences in the metabolism of the fungus compared with that of the host cell. Identifying weaknesses in the physiology of the fungus could lead to new strategies to protect plants from rice blast.

“This could lead to the development of novel crop protection strategies targeting molecular pathways that are critical for the growth of the fungus in rice cells, but are not required for the normal function of the plant cell,” Wilson said.

Rice is currently grown in California and the Mississippi Valley region of the United States. Beyond rice blast, Wilson’s research has the potential to shed light on the basic principals of cell growth, which could ultimately assist producers in Nebraska.

“The lessons that we could potentially learn from how this fungus invades rice cells will be applicable to other crops,” Wilson said. In certain parts of the world, M. oryzae has also caused wheat blast.

One of the challenges to defeating this fungus is that it grows undetected in rice cells for the first few days of infection. By the time a producer discovers lesions on the plant, it is too late. Control methods such as fungicides and breed resistance are not sustainable due to cost, limited availability in certain parts of the world and little reduction in the fungus.

According to Wilson, fundamentally understanding what’s occurring within the plant cell could allow for the manipulation of the fungus so it can be detected earlier, which would put producers in a better position to manage diseases. During the three year grant-term, Wilson will look to define the differences between the fungus and the host cells. Once that is accomplished, research will shift to finding strategies to disrupt the fungus while still growing and developing a healthy plant.  

Richard Wilson
Associate Professor
Department of Plant Pathology