Each year worldwide, farmers spend an estimated $33 billion to help protect their crops against disease and pests. And each year, they still lose an estimated $100 billion to disease and pests.
New research at UNT aims to lessen the need for costly pesticides by arming plants with more effective natural defenses.
Jyoti Shah, associate professor of biology, recently received more than $1 million in two grants from the National Science Foundation to improve the understanding of plant responses to stress.
"We want to understand how plants defend themselves," Shah says. "If you understand basic defense mechanisms, you can develop plants with enhanced resistance. It's better to protect than cure."
Under one grant, which will provide $640,000 over the next four years, researchers will study plant defense against the green peach aphid, a tiny insect that can feed on more than 50 kinds of plants, including apple, peach, tomato, potato, bean, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, cucumber, cantaloupe and watermelon.
The aphids essentially steal nutrients from the plants, which reduces crop productivity. In addition, the insects are vectors of viral diseases of plants.
Previous research at UNT discovered that a gene involved in the metabolism of trehalose, a sugar that is present in trace amounts in plants, can help plants defend against aphids. Shah will now study how this gene and the metabolism of trehalose contribute to defense and whether they can be engineered to enhance resistance.
In a second grant, which will provide $400,452, Shah will work with researchers at Kansas State University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis to understand how the oxidation of lipids contributes to stress responses in plants. Membranes, which are primarily constituted of lipids, are present on the surface and inside of cells and are critical for cell function. Stress induces the oxidation of lipids, which may result in the release of signals that stimulate defenses.
In both projects, Shah will use the Arabidopsis thaliana, a small weed that has long been utilized as a genetic model for studying plant growth, development and stress responses.
Graduate and undergraduate students will work on both projects.
Shah belongs to UNT's plant signaling cluster, a seven-person group of plant science researchers who explore the plant signals that control growth and defense against pathogens with the intent of developing new technologies in agriculture and medicine.
Sarah Bahari with UNT News Service can be reached at Sarah.Bahari@unt.edu.