Reducing pesticide inputs and improving crop production under environmental stress by using seed treatments to prime plant defences.

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Lancaster Environment Centre


Horticulture, the production of fresh fruit, vegetables, salads etc. is often overlooked in discussions linked to food security, yet as the global middle class is set to increase from just over 1.9 bn today to over 4.9 bn by 2030 it is inevitable that demand for high-value fresh produce will also increase dramatically. Horticulture is therefore a prime sector for deploying new science to deliver new approaches to sustainable, profitable crop production. One particularly important component of protected crop production urgently requiring attention is the development of methods for control of pests and diseases that do not rely on traditional chemical pesticides. There are increasingly compelling economic, human health and environmental arguments for developing sustainable, non-toxic solutions for the crop protection; particularly in light of recent high profile reports linking certain families of widely used chemical pesticides to increased risk of autism spectrum disorders in children born to women exposed to organophosphate pesticides during pregnancy and neonicotinoid insecticides negatively impacting survival of a broad range of non-target species, including pollinators. Beyond this, there is constant commercial pressure on growers from both large food retailers and consumers to reduce residues in fresh produce.

The approach taken in our lab in Lancaster is to reduce reliance on pesticides by developing methods for enhancing plants' own natural capabilities for stress tolerance. Recently, MRR and JPM, the academic and industrial supervisors for the proposed PhD project, were part of a team who demonstrated that seed treatment with jasmonic acid (JA) and beta-aminobutyric acid (BABA), both elicitors of pest and disease resistance, provides long-lasting priming of defence in a range of globally, economically important crop species. This discovery was patented and is now in commercial use under exclusive worldwide license to BASF. Using non-toxic activators of natural plant induced resistance should pose a lesser threat to both consumers and to biodiversity and ecosystem service provision, since they target the plant rather than microbes, insects or other animals. Importantly, it is also now recognized that those pathways responsible for directing induced responses to biotic stress can also act to activate plant tolerance to a range of abiotic stresses, including drought and extreme high temperatures; both of which are of significant and increasing commercial interest to global protected crop producers.

The objectives of this proposal are therefore twofold. The project will primarily focus on further developing the use of seed treatments for priming of responses to biotic stresses. We will test how such treatments might be integrated alongside existing alternative crop protection methods and ultimately test whether they can be employed to maintain maximum pest control at reduced rates of pesticide application via further manipulation of IR pathways during crop development without loss of yield. Second, we will determine whether those treatments developed to deliver biotic resistance also provide useful levels of tolerance to drought and high temperatures.

Subsequently, we will apply our new knowledge to design protocols for crop protection in commercial crop production. The student will then test these protocols in commercial trials conducted in collaboration with the industry partner in their markets.

The key scientific outcome will be the generation of new, more sustainable approaches to commercial crop protection, which delivers directly to BBSRC's strategic priority 'Sustainably enhancing agricultural production.'

The academic-industry partnership is based on a long-standing and successful relationship between Lancaster University and Arid Agritec Ltd., and will provide the PhD student with excellent complementary experience and training in plant science in both fundamental and applied contexts.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M016617/1 30/09/2015 29/09/2019
1653649 Studentship BB/M016617/1 30/09/2015 30/12/2019 Jennifer Shemmings