New international collaboration to protect the world’s crops

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Experts from the United Kingdom and India are working together to identify and develop novel environmentally-sustainable strategies to control plant pests, known as plant-parasitic nematodes or eelworms, to ensure global food production and security. This project is funded by the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI).

click image to zoomSharad Mohan, Ph.D., from Indian Agricultural Research Institute (left) and Keith Davies, Ph.D., from University of Hertfordshire (right). Plant-parasitic nematodes are thought to cause annual losses to crops in the region of $77 - $100 billion globally. They are an important constraint on crop production by reducing the effective uptake of water and nutrients by the plant’s root system. Since the middle of the twentieth century, these crop pests have been controlled through the use of synthetic pesticides. But these are some of the most environmentally toxic compounds used in agriculture, and legislation prohibits their use in many parts of the world including Europe and USA. Hence, less environmentally harmful methods of control are required.

Keith Davies, Ph.D., senior lecturer in applied nematology at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “Both India and the UK have a problem with potato cyst nematodes which has a serious impact on the potato crops each year. This project is to develop natural solutions to control these pests on this important staple crop.

“We need natural control methods which do not have the detrimental effect on the environment that the synthetic pesticides have. India also has serious nematode problems on other major crops including rice, wheat and pigeon pea – so the project will also look at natural solutions to control these crop pests.”

The head of a nematode infected with Pasteuria spores. This new collaboration brings together expertise in this area of crop protection and food security from the University of Hertfordshire, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and Rothamsted Research.

The research team will be investigating the use of a bacterium from the Pasteuria group which produces spores and is a parasite of several invertebrate animals which live within soil. The spores lie dormant in the soil and adhere to and then infect the nematodes as they make their way towards the plant roots.

Davies continued: “We know from previous research that when infected, the nematode’s ability to reproduce is affected and, in some species of pest nematode, they are prohibited from reproducing. This effect on nematodes has been associated with nematode suppressive soils.”

The project aims to understand how Pasteuria penetrans bacterial parasites attach themselves to the nematode’s outer skin known as its cuticle. By investigating these molecular interactions between plant-parasitic nematodes and the group of nematode parasitic bacteria, the research team aims to exploit this knowledge and develop a natural and sustainable biological control agent for plant-parasitic nematodes.

The two year UKIERI-funded project ‘Understanding Pasteuria spore attachment for exploitation as a natural control agent of root-knot and cyst nematode crop pests’ involves a total of fifteen exchange visits between scientists in India and the UK to build substantial capacity in the area of nematology, molecular biology and crop protection.


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