1. Microbiology and Infectious Disease
  2. Plant Biology
Download icon

Plant Disease: Autophagy under attack

  1. Paul de Figueiredo
  2. Marty Dickman  Is a corresponding author
  1. Texas A&M University, United States
  • Cited 3
  • Views 2,646
  • Annotations
Cite this article as: eLife 2016;5:e14447 doi: 10.7554/eLife.14447


Pathogens target proteins involved in autophagy to inhibit immune responses in plants.

Main text

The Irish potato famine was responsible for more than one million deaths and the emigration of one million people from Europe in the 1840s (Andrivon, 1996). Today, the microbe that caused the famine, an oomycete called Phytophthora infestans, continues to cause serious outbreaks of disease in potato crops. Traditional control measures, such as fungicides and breeding for resistance, often have only marginal success in combating the disease, especially when the climate favors the growth and development of P. infestans (Fry and Goodwin, 1997). Now, in eLife, Sophien Kamoun, Tolga Bozkurt and colleagues – including Yasin Dagdas and Khaoula Belhaj as joint first authors – reveal how one of the proteins produced by P. infestans manipulates host plant cells to weaken their defenses (Dagdas et al., 2016).

It is well established that plant pathogens secrete proteins and small molecules – collectively known as effectors – that can interfere with plant defenses and make it easier for pathogens to infect and spread (Djamei et al., 2011; de Wit et al., 2009; Rovenich et al., 2014; Gawehns et al., 2014). However, as part of an ongoing arms race between plants and pathogens, some effectors are recognized by proteins in the host plant, which triggers immune responses that act to contain the infection. Relatively little is known about how effectors interfere with plant defenses. In particular, the identities of the plant molecules that are targeted by the effectors, and details of how the effectors are transported into plant cells, remain unclear.

The success of P. infestans as a pathogen is largely due to its ability to secrete hundreds of different effectors. Now, Dagdas, Belhaj et al. – who are based at the Sainsbury Laboratory, the John Innes Centre and Imperial College – report how they carried out a screen for plant molecules that interact with effectors from P. infestans (Dagdas et al., 2016). The experiments were carried out in the leaves of tobacco, which is a commonly used plant model, and show that an effector called PexRD54 targets a process called autophagy in plant cells.

Autophagy is a complex “self-eating” process that occurs when plant and other eukaryotic cells experience certain stresses – for example, due to a shortage of nutrients or a change in environmental conditions. During autophagy, cell material is broken down to supply the building blocks needed to maintain essential processes (Li and Vierstra, 2009). More recently, autophagy has been implicated in a variety of other situations, including restricting the growth and spread of invading microbes. A growing body of evidence suggests that autophagy plays a dual role both in promoting the survival of cells and in triggering cell death.

During autophagy, cell materials are sequestered by structures called autophagosomes and then delivered to acidic cell compartments where the material is degraded and recycled. In addition to supporting the bulk degradation of cell materials, it was recently shown that autophagy allows the selective removal of cellular components that are damaged or no longer needed. In selective autophagy, the sequestered material is loaded into autophagosomes by specific interactions between receptor proteins and specific autophagy proteins, such as the ATG8 proteins (Stolz et al., 2014, Lamb et al., 2013).

Dagdas, Belhaj et al. found that PexRD54 interferes with the activity of a potato cargo receptor called Joka2. PexRD54 out-competes Joka2 to bind to an ATG8 protein and stimulate the formation of an autophagosome in the plant cell (Figure 1). In doing so, the oomycete cleverly reduces the loading of specific types of cargo into autophagosomes and thus limits the plant defense response.

Phytophthora infestans interferes with the immune responses of potato plants.

Spores of P. infestans land on the leaves of potato plants and germinate (top middle). The growing fungus enters the leaves and spreads around the plant, leading to disease (top right). Proteins called effectors are released from the pathogen and some are taken into the cells of the host plant (bottom left). These effectors (purple ovals) interact with host factors (green squares) to promote the progression of the disease. Dagdas, Belhaj et al. found that a P. infestans effector called PexRD54 (purple oval; bottom right) out-competes a plant cargo receptor known as Joka2 (green square) on the surface of a membrane structure called a phagophore, which eventually becomes an autophagosome. In this way, PexRD54 prevents the loading of cargo proteins into autophagosomes and inhibits plant defenses.

The reported observations expand upon studies of mammalian pathogens that also harbor effectors that interfere with autophagy (Table 1). Taken together, this work provides a template for future investigations into the ways in which effectors subvert host plant defenses. However, a number of interesting questions remain unanswered. For example, how do cargo receptors work? How are they regulated? What is the nature of the cargo in the autophagosomes and how does it regulate immune responses? In addition, our understanding of the mechanisms that control selective autophagy remain incomplete. How is the selectivity regulated, and what other cell mechanisms might be subverted by effectors? Phytophthora diseases can have devastating effects, but as this study illustrates, they can also illuminate and advance our understanding of fundamental cellular processes.

Table 1

Mammalian pathogens that express proteins that interfere with host autophagosome biogenesis or function.

VirusHIV virushumanNef1Inhibits host autophagyCampbell et al., 2015
CMV virushumanTrs1Inhibits host autophagyChaumorcel et al., 2012
Dengue virusmammalNS4AUpregulation of autophagyMcLean et al., 2011
BacteriaLegionellamammalRavZCleaves an Atg8 protein from pre-autophagosomesChoy et al., 2012; Horenkamp et al., 2015
CoxiellamammalCig2Disrupts interactions between acidic compartments and host autophagosomesNewton et al., 2014
SalmonellamammalSseLInhibits selective autophagy of cytosolic aggregatesMesquita et al., 2012
Anaplasma phagocytophilummammalAts-1Hijacks a pathway that activates autophagy to promote its growth inside cellsNiu et al., 2012
Vibrio parahemolyticusmammalVopQCreates pores in acidic compartments in host cellsSreelatha et al., 2013
EukaryotePhytophthoraplantPexRD54Inappropriately activates the formation of autophagosomesDagdas et al., 2016


Article and author information

Author details

  1. Paul de Figueiredo

    Norman Borlaug Institute, Department of Veterinary Pathobiology and Department of Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology, Texas A&M University, College Station, United States
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  2. Marty Dickman

    Norman Borlaug Institute and the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, Texas A&M University, College Station, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.

Publication history

  1. Version of Record published: February 23, 2016 (version 1)


© 2016, de Figueiredo et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


  • 2,646
    Page views
  • 474
  • 3

Article citation count generated by polling the highest count across the following sources: PubMed Central, Crossref, Scopus.

Download links

A two-part list of links to download the article, or parts of the article, in various formats.

Downloads (link to download the article as PDF)

Download citations (links to download the citations from this article in formats compatible with various reference manager tools)

Open citations (links to open the citations from this article in various online reference manager services)

Further reading

    1. Evolutionary Biology
    2. Microbiology and Infectious Disease
    Emily R Ebel et al.
    Research Article

    The replication of Plasmodium falciparum parasites within red blood cells (RBCs) causes severe disease in humans, especially in Africa. Deleterious alleles like hemoglobin S are well-known to confer strong resistance to malaria, but the effects of common RBC variation are largely undetermined. Here we collected fresh blood samples from 121 healthy donors, most with African ancestry, and performed exome sequencing, detailed RBC phenotyping, and parasite fitness assays. Over one third of healthy donors unknowingly carried alleles for G6PD deficiency or hemoglobinopathies, which were associated with characteristic RBC phenotypes. Among non-carriers alone, variation in RBC hydration, membrane deformability, and volume was strongly associated with P. falciparum growth rate. Common genetic variants in PIEZO1, SPTA1/SPTB, and several P. falciparum invasion receptors were also associated with parasite growth rate. Interestingly, we observed little or negative evidence for divergent selection on non-pathogenic RBC variation between Africans and Europeans. These findings suggest a model in which globally widespread variation in a moderate number of genes and phenotypes modulates P. falciparum fitness in RBCs.

    1. Microbiology and Infectious Disease
    2. Structural Biology and Molecular Biophysics
    Gukui Chen et al.
    Research Article Updated

    Cyclic-di-guanosine monophosphate (c-di-GMP) is an important effector associated with acute-chronic infection transition in Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Previously, we reported a signaling network SiaABCD, which regulates biofilm formation by modulating c-di-GMP level. However, the mechanism for SiaD activation by SiaC remains elusive. Here we determine the crystal structure of SiaC-SiaD-GpCpp complex and revealed a unique mirror symmetric conformation: two SiaD form a dimer with long stalk domains, while four SiaC bind to the conserved motifs on the stalks of SiaD and stabilize the conformation for further enzymatic catalysis. Furthermore, SiaD alone exhibits an inactive pentamer conformation in solution, demonstrating that SiaC activates SiaD through a dynamic mechanism of promoting the formation of active SiaD dimers. Mutagenesis assay confirmed that the stalks of SiaD are necessary for its activation. Together, we reveal a novel mechanism for DGC activation, which clarifies the regulatory networks of c-di-GMP signaling.