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New insight gained into how plants may fight diseases

Visit  Science and Technology Facilities Council website

13 June 2012

A breakthrough discovery that has shown how plants may defend themselves in the face of pathogen attacks could hold the key to making crops more disease-resistant and to boosting food production to help global food security.

As part of a BBSRC-funded project led by Oxford Brookes University, STFC's Central Laser Facility has developed a unique technique that has answered a question which has puzzled scientists for many years - why certain proteins in plant cells don't move around as much as their counterparts in animal cells.

By enabling the movement of individual molecules in living plant cells to be observed in real time for the first time, the new technique has revealed that the cell wall plays a crucial role in limiting the mobility of proteins produced when a plant comes under attack. Specifically, it has shown that the cell wall allows these proteins to stabilise in the plasma membrane (a 'skin' covering the inside of the cell wall). This restricts their ability to move around and fight invading pathogens and so increases the plant's vulnerability.

Dr Stan Botchway from the Lasers for Science division within the Central Laser Facility says: "The technique we've developed and deployed to solve this mystery has helped provide unprecedented insights into plants' defence mechanisms. As a result, we've plugged a major gap in scientists' understanding of how plants function at a microscopic level."

Dr John Runions of Oxford Brookes University, who has led the project, says: "This vital advance in our knowledge of the fundamental biological processes that take place in living plant cells will help us to improve crops' resilience and their ability to meet the challenges posed not just by diseases and pests but also by drought and a warming climate."

The breakthrough has been achieved using a single-molecule tracking technique specially developed at the OCTOPUS (Optics Clustered to OutPut Unique Solutions) imaging facilities, which form part of the world-leading Central Laser Facility's Lasers for Science division, located in the Research Complex at Harwell. This was complemented by the use of total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy - an established technique which, by eliminating background fluorescence, delivers extremely high-resolution images of samples under investigation.

The result was a clear demonstration that a plant's cell wall interacts with proteins produced in cell membranes and restricts their diffusion, possibly reducing their ability to ward off diseases.

As the world's population continues to grow, there is an urgent need to improve crop yields by enhancing the resilience of a range of crops to disease. This research project therefore represents a crucial stepping stone in bringing the sustainability of future food supplies within closer reach.

The research paper outlining this major discovery in plant biology has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) at


Notes to editors

BBSRC awarded £295k in funding for this project and also contributed funding to the original development of capabilities at STFC's Central Laser Facility.

OCTOPUS, located in the Research Complex at Harwell, at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, links multiple light sources to multiple imaging stations, allowing a combination of techniques to be brought to bear on the samples under investigation.

A pathogen is a disease-bearing microbe.

For more images or information see the external contact below.

About the STFC

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security.

The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including:

  • In the UK; ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR. STFC is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd.
  • Overseas; telescopes on La Palma and Hawaii

It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils. It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Follow us on Twitter: @STFC_Matters. For more information visit:



BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see:
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: