Jellyfish take sting out of crop disease

September 15, 1995

Aisling Irwing reports from the British Association for the Advancement of Science festival at Newcastle University.

A jellyfish gene has been transplanted into a plant to make it glow when it is having a tough time. The gene occurs naturally in the jellyfish aequorea. It makes the organism give out a blue luminescence when it is touched, which frightens off predators.

But Tony Trewavas of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at Edinburgh University has discovered that if the gene is put into certain plants then they too will glow, triggered if they are touched, buffeted by the wind, experience extreme cold or are attacked by fungus.

These various stresses release calcium ions in the plant - and the calcium triggers a protein, produced by the new gene, to luminesce. Professor Trewavas hopes that such a glow could act as an early warning system that the plant is under attack.

By ensuring that one in every 1,000 of an agricultural crop has a jellyfish gene, and turning up at dusk to see whether or not it is glowing, farmers could discover a fungal attack on the whole crop early. Such attacks are not usually discovered until the plant has been almost overcome by the fungus.

Dr Trewavas said: "The world population is set to quadruple by the end of next century. Those people have to be fed and there is great pressure on agricultural technology. Farmers will go to bigger fields. Most farmers just spray large areas of crops in anticipation of problems of fungal disease. "The jellyfish plants should be available within three to four years.

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