Biotic constraints to crop production: biochemical and molecular basis of plant interactions with pests, parasites and symbionts

Academic Lead – Sue Hartley   (York)

The focus of the network is understanding the biotic interactions which impact on crop production at the biochemical and molecular level. Crops are subject to a range of pest attacks, often simultaneously, both above- and below-ground (Urwin/Hartley). Such pest outbreaks are predicted to increase under future climate change scenarios, though the mechanisms by which attack by one pest undermines or strengthens resistance to another remain poorly characterised in many cases. Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) associations (Hodge/Cameron; links to Scholes) also alter plant responses to pests (links to Hartley and Urwin), but again the molecular and biochemical changes underpinning these effects have seldom been investigated. Parasitic weeds such as Striga (Scholes; links to Cameron) are another major constraint to crop production via their impact on host chemical composition, resource allocation and morphology, with clear implications for crop interactions with other organisms. The overlapping interests and complementary specialisms of the collaborators in this network will lead to synergistic novel advances in our understanding of plant interactions with organisms which may threaten or enhance crop production. For example, although it is well established that strigolactone perception by Striga (Scholes) plays a key role in host recognition, recent identification of strigolactones as signals in the AM association (Hodge/Cameron) and as endogenous plant hormones that interact with other plant hormones (e.g. auxin; Kepinski) has opened a new research seam this network is well placed to exploit.

Added value: This network will attract high quality students to the key research area of food security and promote pump-priming of research grants by further developing the links among the supervisors and through the generation of novel data. Student training will be promoted through the interdisciplinary nature of the projects; the complementarity of the researchers allows ample scope for added value among projects. The students will interact with all members of the network, providing a rich training environment.

Strategic relevance: With increasing World population, yet a requirement to reduce artificial inputs of fertiliser and pesticides and utilise natural resources in a more sustainable manner, ensuring future food security is a global challenge and a key priority for UK government and research councils. Meeting this challenge requires beneficial interactions among crops and key soil organisms to be exploited while reducing the detrimental impact of pests. This multidisciplinary network investigates mechanisms underpinning plant interactions with other organisms from single molecules through to whole plants, essential for an integrative understanding of crop systems and food security.