Plant resistance or tolerance to disease

By Mike Matheron, UA Extension Plant Pathologist

An extremely valuable weapon in the battle to manage plant diseases can originate from the genetic composition of the plant. This plant genetic disease management tool is commonly referred to as resistance or tolerance. These terms are often used interchangeably; however, the definitions of each term denote a significant difference.

Resistance is defined as the ability of a plant to exclude or overcome the effect of a plant pathogen, whereas tolerance is the ability of a plant infected by a pathogen to grow without dying or sustaining serious injury or yield loss.

Resistance focuses on infection prevention. Tolerance permits the plant to grow without serious injury or yield loss after infection. Disease resistance and tolerance are not all or nothing conditions.

For example, resistance can range from its highest level, which we call immunity, through degrees of useful resistance, and finally to its lowest level, when a plant is highly susceptible to a particular pathogen. Also, resistance and tolerance usually are specific to one or a few diseases at most, and not a broad range of plant ailments.

The mechanisms within plants that create disease resistance and tolerance are many and varied. Successful suppression of pathogen activity by a plant is tied to how a particular pathogen gains entrance into a plant to initiate disease and also how a plant defends itself from that infection by one or more physiological (biochemical) or morphological (structural) changes.

One key advantage of genetic resistance or tolerance is this disease management tool will be active for the life of the plant, whereas a crop protection product, if available for managing a particular disease, has to be applied more than once to suppress the disease over a long period of time.

Also, disease management controlled by plant genetics often targets diseases for which no other known effective disease management tools are known. Building disease resistance or tolerance into plants is an ongoing activity of plant breeders, using classical as well as modern genetic manipulation techniques, to achieve this goal.

Contact Matheron: (928) 726-6856 or matheron@ag.arizona.edu.