36.8: Defenses Against Pathogens and Herbivores
Plants present a rich source of nutrients for many organisms, making it a target for herbivores and infectious agents. Plants, though lacking a proper immune system, have developed an array of constitutive and inducible defenses to fend off these attacks.
Mechanical defenses form the first line of defense in plants. The thick barrier formed by the bark protects plants from herbivores. Hard shells, modified branches like thorns, and modified leaves like spines can also discourage herbivores from preying on plants. Other physical barriers like the waxy cuticle, epidermis, cell-wall, and trichomes can help resist invasion by several pathogens.
Plants also resort to the production of chemicals or organic compounds in the form of secondary metabolites like terpenes, phenolics, glycosides, and alkaloids, for defense against both herbivores and pathogens. Many secondary metabolites are toxic and lethal to other organisms. Some specific metabolites can repel predators with noxious odors, repellant tastes, or allergenic characteristics.
Plants also produce proteins and enzymes that specifically inhibit pathogen-proteins or pathogen-enzymes by blocking active sites or altering enzyme conformations. Proteins like defensins, lectins, amylase inhibitors, and proteinase inhibitors are produced in significant quantities during pathogen attack and are activated to inhibit the invasion effectively.
Additionally, plants can also develop a mechanism of Systemic Acquired Resistance (SAR) upon prior, localized exposure to a pathogen, analogous to the innate immune system in animals. This mechanism enables plants to sense the presence of pathogens and activate defense responses to pathogen attacks.