Background: Although it is known that resistant rootstocks facilitate management of fire blight disease, incited by Erwinia amylovora, the role of rootstock root traits in providing systemic defense against E. amylovora is unclear. In this study, the hypothesis that rootstocks of higher root vigor provide higher tolerance to fire blight infection in apples is tested. Several apple scion genotypes grafted onto a single rootstock genotype and non-grafted 'M.7' rootstocks of varying root vigor are used to assess phenotypic and molecular relationships between root traits of rootstocks and fire blight susceptibility of apple scion cultivars.
Results: It is observed that different root traits display significant (p < 0.05) negative correlations with fire blight susceptibility. In fact, root surface area partially dictates differential levels of fire blight susceptibility of 'M.7' rootstocks. Furthermore, contrasting changes in gene expression patterns of diverse molecular pathways accompany observed differences in levels of root-driven fire blight susceptibility. It is noted that a singular co-expression gene network consisting of genes from defense, carbohydrate metabolism, protein kinase activity, oxidation-reduction, and stress response pathways modulates root-dependent fire blight susceptibility in apple. In particular, WRKY75 and UDP-glycotransferase are singled-out as hub genes deserving of further detailed analysis.
Conclusions: It is proposed that low root mass may incite resource-limiting conditions to activate carbohydrate metabolic pathways, which reciprocally interact with plant immune system genes to elicit differential levels of fire blight susceptibility.
Keywords: Co-expression network; Disease resistance; Erwinia amylovora; Gene expression; Gene regulation; Grafting; Root growth; Root mass; Root shoot interactions; Transcriptome.