Understanding plant immunity to improve human health

MSU Foundation Professor Brad Day studies the mechanisms by which plants fend off pathogens

MSU Foundation Professor Brad Day

MSU Foundation Professor Brad Day, in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, is bridging the knowledge gap between the immune systems of plants and humans through better understanding the mechanisms by which plants fend off pathogens.

“I think one of the greatest things that my lab has been able to accomplish is not simply looking at ways to make plants more resistant to pathogens, but looking at underlying mechanisms,” said Day, who came to MSU as an assistant professor in 2006. “We've discovered that those mechanisms share great similarity with some of the more significant diseases and pathologies that humans face.”

Those discoveries have helped Day receive a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study host immunity response.

“As a plant biologist, to receive funding on a first-time grant submission to NIH, to say ‘we've got something really cool here, and we think it has relevance that extends to human health,’ and for NIH to invest in this research, was one of the coolest experiences of my work so far,” he said.

Two of his current projects, funded by the National Science Foundation and NIH, look at the basic mechanisms of how plants regulate their immune systems. 

“We have identified several mechanisms in plant immunity that have known functions in human diseases,” he said. “We can use plants as a model to understand how these mechanisms function and how they've evolved. In doing that with plants, we can not only understand immunity, but we can also understand mechanisms that reach out into other neurological diseases. For example, a plant can tell us how the mechanism of Alzheimer’s may function, even though plants don't have neurosystems, some of those basic underlying chemical mechanisms are shared.”

Day said plants also provide somewhat surprising opportunities to learn more about human immunity.

“I think plants offer both technical and resource advantages that are sometimes obstacles in human research,” Day said. “For example, we can knock out many multiples of combinations of genes and study their function in plants.”

“No longer are the days when we think we can knock out a single gene, and that is the magic bullet that underpins a disease. Diseases in humans are complex and are controlled by many genes and developmental states. In plants we can knock out multiple genes and expose plants to multiple environments to understand how those genes interact as a network in response to multiple stresses.

MSU has established itself as a leader in plant health, and Day said he takes pride in advancing that work.

“When you see Air Force One, you immediately think of the United States. When you see MSU, you immediately think of a phenomenal, world-class research institute that is at the top of the pyramid in agricultural and plant science research,” Day said. “Being a professor at MSU, gives a lot more credence to our work, but there's also a certain level of responsibility that comes with doing research at a place like MSU.”

He said he is most excited when he sees his students make their own discoveries and connections.

“The best moments for me is seeing that ‘aha moment’ that a student in the lab has when they realize what they're doing is important and broadly applicable across biology,” Day said. “It's not as much about collecting money and collecting grants to do the research, but it's these experiences that having access to funding creates and enables them to think and build their own sandbox.”

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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