The University of Illinois has received a five year, $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve the photosynthetic properties of key food crops, such as rice and cassava. The project, entitled ‘RIPE- Realising Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency’ has the potential to benefit farmers by improving the productivity of staple food crops. Increasing photosynthetic efficiency has the potential to increase yields and reduce the use of irrigation and fertilisation, however to date there has been limited research on photosynthetic properties of crop plants. The University of Illinois research team will apply recent advances in photosynthetic research, model simulations and crop bioengineering to the RIPE project. Stephen Long, the Project Director and Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at Illinois said:
“The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation predict that the world will need to increase staple crop yields by 20% by 2050. Photosynthesis promises a new area, ripe for exploitation that will provide part of the yield jump the world needs to maintain food security”
Cocoa, Theobroma cacao L. is the third most important export product in Ecuador; a country which produces 70% of the world’s highly prized Arriba cocoa. However, the sustainability of this crop is threatened by a number of devastating pest species including fungal diseases and insect pests. Among the most severe are the closely related fungal diseases Witches’ Broom Disease Moniliophthora perniciosa and Frosty Pod Rot Moniliophthora roreri, both of which occur in Ecuador. Frosty Pod Rot is an invasive disease which was originally identified in Ecuador in 1917 and has since spread rapidly to other Latin American countries. The fungal pathogen that causes Witches’ Broom Disease is a close relative of Frosty Pod Rot in the same Moniliophthora genus. In addition to the Moniliophthora diseases, Phytophthora spp. can lead to Black Rot of cocoa.These fungal diseases are a principle constraint on world cocoa production and affect the pods, flowers, leaves and stems, causing a decline in production and reduction in bean quality with infested plantations suffering dramatic yield losses and in some cases total loss of production. Breeding for disease resistance in cocoa is a key factor in maintaining sustainability of cocoa, since there is widespread concern over fungicide resistance, the safety and effectiveness of widespread pesticide use and recent tightening of regulations regarding pesticide residues on cocoa. The INIAP, national research institute of Ecuador, in collaboration with Mars Chocolate and the USDA is investing in substantial cocoa breeding programs with the aim of developing more productive, disease resistant, high yielding cocoa plants for Ecuadorian cocoa farmers. Continue reading →
All cereals, except rice, are susceptible to rust. Wheat, maize, barley, millet, triticale, and oats all get rust. The spores of rust fungi land on a host plant, germinate, and grow toward a stomatal pore on the leaf surface to initiate infection. Rust infections produce red or yellow pustulating spores that give infected plants a “rusty” look. In susceptible plants, rust cuts off the plants’ ability to photosynthesise nutrients in their leaves and transport nutrients in their stems, causing stems to weaken and plants to fall over, making what little yield there is nearly impossible to harvest.
Rice, the “stainless steel” among cereal grasses, has long intrigued plant breeders and plant pathologists. For decades scientists have believed that, by discovering the genes that make rice immune to rusts, they might be able to introduce these genes into other cereal grains such as wheat and maize.
Breeding plants for fast growth and high yield may make them more susceptible to pests and diseases. New research from the University of Zurich using the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana has confirmed long suspected theory, showing that when plants put more resources into growth they often shut down some defence genes.