New project to investigate ways of increasing crop yields by reducing disease

10th Jan 2013

The University of Reading is playing a key role in a £500,000 study which could result in increased crop yields through new disease prevention techniques.

In partnership with the University of Oxford and project leaders UWE Bristol, the three-year project aims to address the growing concern about the emergence of new plant diseases and the durability of existing sources of disease resistance in trees and crop plants.

Micro-organisms that cause crop disease are engaged in a constant arms race with plants, rapidly evolving to infect previously disease-resistant varieties or to expand their host range and infect new plant species.

Previous studies have shown how the mechanisms by which plants attempt to fight off disease can promote the emergence of new strains that are able to infect previously resistant plants. The researchers aim to understand these ‘hot zones' in greater detail. 

Dr Rob Jackson, from the Reading's School of Biological Sciences, said: "The recent Ash Dieback crisis has shown the importance of needing to know exactly how a pathogen overcomes a plant's defence system and rapidly spreads between hosts. This work will provide important insights into how many different pathogens and plant hosts fight each other and therefore help other researchers in controlling a variety of plant diseases. Importantly, this project provides training for two early career scientists in the area of plant pathology, a key area of expertise that is currently under-represented in the UK." 

Through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funded study the researchers are examining a disease that causes bean plants to lose their leaves and die. This is a serious and costly problem for farmers worldwide.

The bacterium under study is Pseudomonas syringae. When a plant is infected by P. syringae it defends itself by sending a ‘suicide signal' to the plant cells surrounding the bacteria. When the affected plant cells die they release antimicrobial compounds toxic to the bacterium.

Principal Investigator, Professor Dawn Arnold from UWE's Centre for Research in Biosciences, said: "The team has previously discovered that bean plants' natural defences against bacterial infections could be unwittingly driving the evolution of more highly pathogenic bacteria. 

"Protecting plants from disease is a major part of national and international food security strategies. This new study will support one of the BBSRC's priority areas of Crop Science. It will be multi-disciplinary, involving aspects of microbiology, pathology, genomics and genetics. Our research results will not only help agriculture and policy-makers, but will also be made available to the public."

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