Immunizations: Not just for humans anymore

1426889_52787410Every time we as a society face an emerging pathogen (think H1N1 in 2009 and Ebola right now), scientists race to create a vaccine so we can start mass immunizations to protect the public. But why do we do this only for human diseases?

Plants have to deal with pathogens too and since we rely heavily on plants as a food source, wouldn t it behoove us to also develop plant vaccines? In fact a number of researchers are trying to do just this: create vaccines for plants.

Jeannette Rapicavoli, a PhD Candidate in Plant Pathology at University of California, Riverside, wrote an excellent piece for Business Insider on how these vaccines work.

Rapicavoli explains We can apply this same principle to a plant-pathogen relationship. For example, once we ve identified a pathogen s pattern of interest, we work to isolate and purify it. This step is like manufacturing the vaccine.

She continues We can then inoculate the plant with the purified pattern for instance, by injecting it into the stem or leaves with a syringe. The goal is to stimulate the plant s natural immune response, resulting in a faster and/or stronger defense response the next time the plant encounters that pathogen.

One major difference will be that unlike humans, plants do not mount immune reactions that are specific to an antigen. For example, when we are infected with the influenza virus, our cells produce antibodies specific to this virus. However, in plants the response is broadspectrum, which should serve as an advantage for vaccinated plants.

Although it still remains to be seen how it will work in widespread practice, research into the technique has been very promising according to Rapicavoli. Her article reports that vaccinated plants show little to no reduction in plant fitness, the duration of immunization is a significant proportion of the plant s life and there is some evidence they can pass this protection onto their progeny.

The American Council on Science and Health s Nicholas Staropoli adds, One of the major benefits of the adoption of this technique could be a reduction in pesticide use for farmers. Although pesticides, in the doses humans are exposed to, are safe, it will be beneficial for us to find ways to reduce our reliance on them, in particular due to the threat of weeds and diseases becoming resistant to pesticides.