Libo Shan, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University, has received an Outstanding Investigator Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to study host immune signaling against infection.  

A woman, Dr. Libo Shan, sits in a lab setting.
Libo Shan, Ph.D., has received an Outstanding Investigator Award to study host immune signaling against infection. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo)  

The award is a National Institutes of Health Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award. It will provide $380,000 in annual research funding for five years starting in January — a total budget of $1.9 million.

Purpose of the study

This study will shed light on the molecular signaling networks involved in plant immune responses, said Shan, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist who will serve as the sole investigator for the study.

The project will also investigate the mechanisms in plant innate immunity with convergent evolutionary features in animals that may provide insights for human disease prevention and intervention.

Shan said plants have evolved fascinating strategies to cope with various environmental stresses. Studying how plants respond to such stresses can be instructive in understanding organisms’ immune response.  

“We are investigating the biochemical and genetic basis of plant signal transduction pathways from cell surface receptors sensing the presence of pathogens,” she said.

Shan said she also will be investigating the signaling cascades and target genes and proteins that are central to launch an effective immune response in the context of balanced growth and development. 

Receptors, signaling and immunity

Shan said plants and animals rely on pattern-recognition receptors to detect infection by recognizing microbe-associated molecular patterns.

“Plant plasma membrane resident receptor kinases are a large family of proteins involved in diverse plant responses including development, growth, hormone perception and response to pathogens,” she said. “These function as these receptors that sense those patterns from diverse microbes and collectively contribute to plant immunity. They also perceive a wide range of extrinsic and intrinsic signals as well as regulating plant growth, reproduction and environmental adaptation.”

She said the study will focus on a subfamily of receptor kinases that associate with various other receptors after detecting infectious patterns and environmental cues, thereby coordinate plant immunity, growth and immune homeostasis.

“Microbial infection also induces the gene expression of many secreted peptides, which could be perceived by pattern-recognition receptors and be instrumental in fortifying plant immunity,” she said.  

Shan said the long-term goal of the proposed research will be to find out more about how pattern-recognition receptor complexes detect and integrate pathogen signals in coordination with other plant immune molecules such as phytocytokines.

“This signaling and the response it initiates makes for a rapid, specific and robust immune response,” she said.

The project will define how the shared BAK1/SERK coreceptors maintain specificity in different receptor complexes. It will also address how signaling specificity is regulated with single-cell resolution at the organismal level, plus investigate how phytocytokines coordinate with microbial patterns to mount effective immunity.

“This will advance our understanding of innate immunity and signal transduction at the entire organismal level by identifying new components and delineating novel pathways that regulate immune signal integration, signaling activation, attenuation and specificity,” she said.  

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