Rathjen Group - Plant immunity


We have a long standing interest in plant immunity, and are studying how it integrates with plant physiology and developing strategies to control disease. Our major diseases of interest are wheat stripe rust caused by a fungal pathogen and bacterial speck disease. We have made seminal contributions in a number of areas including pathogen recognition by plants, identification of signal transduction pathways and how microbes suppress them, and genomics and transcriptomics of rust fungi.

Honours and PhD projects are available in the following areas:


Sweet immunity - how immunity interfaces with photosynthesis

Green plants harness sunlight to convert CO2 into sugars. Naturally, this attracts microbes who seek to feed on this abundant nutrient source. Plants are a mixture of source tissues that fix carbon and sink tissues that utilise it, a relationship that is exploited by pathogens. Biotrophic pathogens such as fungal rusts act as a new sink that maintains photosynthetic production while avoiding detection by the plant's immune system. Necrotrophic pathogens trigger immunity, leading to inappropriate conversion of source tissues to sink which triggers cell death. The major focus of this work is to understand how plant immune receptors trigger the major changes in primary metabolism that underlie these events. This investigation represents the cutting edge of plant immunity research and utilises a range of techniques including biochemistry, molecular biology, metabolomics and comparative transcriptomics.

Innovating new disease control strategies

Fungal diseases such as rusts cause huge economic and food losses. We constantly need new ways to combat them and to reduce the impact of toxic fungicides on the environment.

Fungi that attack fungi

Rust fungi produce huge numbers of spores wich store large amounts of protein, carbohydrate, fats and sugar alcohols. This makess them targets for opportunistic members of the microbiome including fungal hyperparasites. We have isolated a number of potential fungal hyperpasites of rust spores and are asking questions about their specificity and aggressiveness. As we learn more about these fungi we will test if they can be used to control rust diseases under field conditions. We are performing whole genome sequencing of selected isolates in conjunction with transcriptomics to identify key pathogenicity genes and small metabolite clusters.

Synthetic biology for new pathogen receptors

Stem, stripe and wheat rust diseases of wheat wreak havoc on grain production causing famine and huge economic losses. The best means of control is via deployment of plant resistance genes, but these are rapidly overcome by the rapidly evolving pathogens. This project is lead by DECRA fellow Dr Xiaoxiao Zhang and uses synthetic biology methods to generate new resistance genes in vitro for rapid deployment in crops via genome engineering.


Genomics of wheat rusts

Although wheat rusts evolve rapidly, their sources of genetic variability, pathways to evolution of virulence, and relationships between lineages are poorly understood. Here we interact with local and international collaborators to better understand these problems in a global context. Projects in this area are offered in collaboration with the Schwessinger laboratory.


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Selected publications


Boutrot F, Segonzac C, Chang K, Qiao H, Ecker J, Zipfel C, Rathjen J: Direct transcriptional control of the Arabidopsis immune receptor FLS2 by the ethylene-dependent transcription factors EIN3 and EIL1. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2010, 107:14502-14507.

Dodds P, Rathjen J: Plant immunity: towards an integrated view of plant-pathogen interactions. Nature Reviews Genetics 2010, 11:539-548.

GIMENEZ-IBANEZ S, HANN D, NTOUKAKIS V, PETUTSCHNIG E, LIPKA V, RATHJEN J: AvrPtoB Targets the LysM Receptor Kinase CERK1 to Promote Bacterial Virulence on Plants. CURRENT BIOLOGY 2009, 19:423-429.

Hann D, Gimenez-Ibanez S, Rathjen J: Bacterial virulence effectors and their activities. Current Opinion in Plant Biology 2010, 13:388-393.

Heese A, Hann DR, Gimenez-Ibanez S, Jones AME, He K, Li J, Schroeder JI, Peck SC, Rathjen JP: The receptor-like kinase SERK3/BAK1 is a central regulator of innate immunity in plants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2007, 104:12217-12222.

Mucyn TS, Clemente A, Andriotis VME, Balmuth AL, Oldroyd GED, Staskawicz BJ, Rathjen JP: The tomato NBARC-LRR protein Prf interacts with Pto kinase in vivo to regulate specific plant immunity. Plant Cell 2006, 18:2792-2806.

NTOUKAKIS V, MUCYN T, GIMENEZ-LBANEZ S, CHAPMAN H, GUTIERREZ J, BALMUTH A, JONES A, RATHJEN J: Host Inhibition of a Bacterial Virulence Effector Triggers Immunity to Infection. SCIENCE 2009, 324:784-787.

RATHJEN J, CHANG J, STASKAWICZ B, MICHELMORE R: Constitutively active Pto induces a Prf-dependent hypersensitive response in the absence of avrPto. EMBO JOURNAL 1999, 18:3232-3240.

SCOFIELD S, TOBIAS C, RATHJEN J, CHANG J, LAVELLE D, MICHELMORE R, STASKAWICZ B: Molecular basis of gene-for-gene specificity in bacterial speck disease of tomato. SCIENCE 1996, 274:2063-2065.

WU A, ANDRIOTIS V, DURRANT M, RATHJEN J: A patch of surface-exposed residues mediates negative regulation of immune signaling by tomato Pto kinase. PLANT CELL 2004, 16:2809-2821.


New study may help improve brain health and food security

Story | Sunday 23 August 2020
Research into the self-destruction of cells in humans and plants could lead to treatments for brain diseases and the development of disease-resistant plants.

Sam Periyannan

Story | Thursday 13 December 2018
Sam Periyannan was born and brought up on a small sugar cane farm in Southern India. He never dreamed he would become a crop researcher, rather than a cane farmer.

Research working to make wheat fungus a thing of the past

Story | Monday 21 May 2018
Researchers have a new understanding of the genetic makeup of a fungus that causes the disease Wheat Stripe Rust, one of the most destructive wheat diseases globally costing $1 billion annually.

Trigger found for defence to rice crop disease

Story | Monday 27 July 2015
Biologists have discovered how the rice plant's immune system is triggered by disease, in a discovery that could boost crop yields and lead to more disease-resistant types of rice.

ARC Discovery projects and DECRA fellowships

Story | Monday 17 November 2014

PS Seminar Series - Tales from the transcriptome: Characterising FERONIA function through comparative gene expression analysis

Event | Fri 25 February 2022
FERONIA (FER) is a plant receptor kinase of many functions, binding to pectin in the cell wall and mediating an astoundingly broad range of plant activities.

PS Seminar Series- Immune signalling transduction from TIR-NLR resistance proteins to helper NLR proteins

Event | Fri 30 July 2021
Plant resistance proteins act as immune receptors to recognise pathogen effectors and activate defense.
Recorded PS Webinar Yiheng Hu exit

PS Webinar Series- PhD Exit Seminar: Pathogen detection and microbial community compositions during fungal infections

Event | Fri 5 February 2021
Devastating fungal diseases threaten global food security and plant and animal populations, highlighting the need for rapid and accurate identification of fungal pathogens.

PS Webinar Series: Co-evolutionary diversification of barley MLA immune receptors by sequence-unrelated powdery mildew AVRA effectors

Event | Wed 5 August 2020
Disease resistance is mediated by recognition of pathogen avriulence effectors (AVR) through host nucleotide-binding leucine-rich repeat receptors (NLR).

PS Webinar Series: The stem rust fungus Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici induces centromeric small RNAs during late infection that direct genome-wide DNA methylation

Event | Wed 22 July 2020
Silencing of transposable elements (TEs) is essential for maintaining genome stability. Plants use small RNAs (sRNAs) to direct DNA methylation to TEs (RNA-directed DNA methylation; RdDM). Similar mechanisms of epigenetic silencing in the fungal kingdom have remained elusive.