Stem cells are essential for the development and organ regeneration of multicellular organisms, so their infection by pathogenic viruses must be prevented. Accordingly, mammalian stem cells are highly resistant to viral infection due to dedicated antiviral pathways including RNA interference (RNAi). In plants, a small group of stem cells harbored within the shoot apical meristem generate all postembryonic above-ground tissues, including the germline cells. Many viruses do not proliferate in these cells, yet the molecular bases of this exclusion remain only partially understood. Here, we show that a plant-encoded RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, after activation by the plant hormone salicylic acid, amplifies antiviral RNAi in infected tissues. This provides stem cells with RNA-based virus sequence information, which prevents virus proliferation. Furthermore, we find RNAi to be necessary for stem cell exclusion of several unrelated RNA viruses, despite their ability to efficiently suppress RNAi in the rest of the plant. This work elucidates a molecular pathway of great biological and economic relevance and lays the foundations for our future understanding of the unique systems underlying stem cell immunity.
Keywords: RNAi; immunity; plant virus; salicylic acid; stem cell.