A discovery could help crop breeders produce disease-resistant plants, and ensure future food supplies.
University scientists have identified an important cog in the molecular machinery of plant immunity.
Their findings, published in the journal Nature, may also have implications for treating human immune-related disorders.
Plants are under constant attack from disease-causing organisms, which feed off the plant cells and cause infection.
They have developed an immune system to protect themselves.
One defence mechanism triggers the death of infected cells, removing the food source from the infection.
Plants generate a short, sharp shock that kills off the cells around where the disease is trying to invade and essentially starves out the disease.
Researchers have shed light on how a key enzyme at the centre of this process is regulated.
The enzyme, called NADPH oxidase, produces a chemical that helps kill the invading organism and also activates a suicide programme to eliminate plant cells that have become infected.
A new mechanism has been discovered that enables this enzyme to produce enough of this chemical to kill off the infection without causing excessive damage to the plant.
The same enzyme is also produced by the human immune system.
People whose bodies cannot effectively produce it can suffer from chronic granulomatous disease, or CGD, which makes it difficult to fight bacterial and fungal infections.
They often suffer from pneumonia and abscesses.
The study was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Darwin Trust, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Ministry of Education Malaysia, and via a Torrance Scholarship.
We hope that plant breeders will be able to use this information to develop disease-resistant varieties. Our discovery may also open new opportunities to treat human immune disorders, such as CGD.