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Impact on Agriculture

Rhopalosiphum maidis on maize

Researchers at BTI are unlocking valuable secrets hidden in basic plant functions that could reduce the negative ecological effects of agricultural practices. Currently, expensive and environmentally harmful petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides continue to be a major issue in modern agriculture, but these researchers may help end their use:

Maria Harrison’s research, for example, will help to reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers. She studies the symbiotic relationship between plants and a fungus that interacts with plant roots and induces structures called arbuscular mycorrhizae. The fungus helps plants absorb the crucial mineral phosphate in exchange for plant-provided carbon. “We’re studying which genes control these interactions, and how the process works,” says Harrison. “The hope is that, with a fuller understanding of the process, we can eventually reduce the amount of required applied synthetic fertilizers in agriculture.” The research may lead to the ability to enhance phosphate absorption through plant genetic engineering, thus decreasing the need for synthetic fertilizers.

Additionally, Georg Jander and his laboratory tackle the issue of pesticide use. Jander studies the natural chemical defenses that plants exhibit when attacked by aphids and other insect herbivores. Certain plants are champions at defending against pests, thanks to genetic differences in their ability to produce protective chemicals. For instance, natural variation in the accumulation of plant chemicals called glucosinolates, which are responsible the characteristic taste of vegetables such as cabbage and radish, also can provide effective defense against herbivory. “The genes that we find can be used for crop improvement through breeding or genetic engineering approaches,” says Jander. “So, this could lead to less pesticide use and more biocontrol measures in crops.”

Harrison, Danielle

Dr. Maria Harrison and lab member Dr. Daniela Floss

Thanks to Harrison and Jander, dedicated basic plant science research not only reveals new insight to plant chemistry and genetics, but can also revolutionize the way we grow our food—with the ultimate goal of increasing yield with sustainable practices.