Worcester Uni secures funding to research new ways of protecting crops from pests

Crop

A leading plant biologist at the University of Worcester has secured a substantial grant to develop new ways of protecting commercial crops from dangerous pests.

Professor Mahmut Tör, Chair of Molecular Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of Worcester, has joined forces with a number of academic partners, including Professor Claire Domoney from the John Innes Centre in Norwich, and Dr Jane Thomas and Dr Tom Wood, both from NIAB in Cambridge, to research new methodologies for protecting crops and improving food security.

The work of Professor Tör and his colleagues is part of a global effort to develop more secure and environmentally sensitive ways of producing enough food to feed the world’s rapidly growing population. The project will receive over £1.1m in support, with £512k coming in the form of a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and the remainder in financial and in-kind contributions from a host of industrial partners.

“Across the world pulses – particularly peas and Vicia faba beans – are grown largely as monocultures, limited in frequency of cropping by the occurrence of diseases” said Professor Tor. Short rotations make it easier for a pathogen to destroy an entire crop. The current methods for dealing with this problem include breeding new, pathogen-resistant cultivars, and the use of pesticides.

“However, pathogens, like the downy mildew we are studying here, have several different strains, and if you don’t know which strain you are dealing with then you won’t know which specific cultivar to grow to make sure you have resistance in your crops.”

Professor Tör’s research aims to develop new faster methods for identifying different strains of downy mildew, so that commercial crop growers will be able to swiftly identify the specific strain that is prevalent in their area, enabling them to plant the correct, pathogen-resistant crop variety, and thus ensure a greater yield, improved food security, and decreased use of costly pesticides, which are also becoming more and more restricted in use through regulatory issues.

“The innovative approach we are taking is to develop new molecular tools for first identifying, and then working with, the different pathogen isolates,” Professor Tör said. “Such tools will allow us to identify the specific isolate prevalent in an area quickly, understand more about how these diseases work, and monitor their spread with greater accuracy.”

“These advancements in our ability to combat pathogens that have the power to ruin an entire crop should, in turn, lead to improved food security and a reduction in the use of pesticides,” he added.

Industrial partners include BirdsEye Ltd, AHDBLimagrain UKElsoms Seeds Ltd, IAR AGRI Ltd, Keith Costello Consultancy, KWS LOCHOw, LS Plant Breeding Ltd, PGRO, Pulses UKSenova Ltd, Storm Seeds, Syngenta, and Herefordshire-based Velcourt Ltd.