Science - April 12, 2011

All diseases and pests in a single database

Researchers and plant breeding companies aim to find the genes responsible for one plant's resistance to all diseases and pests. The project started last Friday.

One plant breeding company may carry out research into the resistance of crop X to caterpillars while another investigates the ability of crop Y to withstand viruses. Research into resistance is fragmented as researchers and plant breeding companies are always looking at a single aspect, says entomology professor Marcel Dicke. 'Even though we now know that a plant's resistance to caterpillars affects its resistance to viruses. We need to progress to a system analysis.'
That is why researchers and plant breeding companies are now joining forces in the Learning from Nature to protect crops research programme set up by Technology Foundation STW. The aim of this programme, which is costing 6.5 million euros, is to create an overview of the key stress factors for crops, from nematodes and moulds in the soil, and insects and viruses above ground to stress factors like drought, salt and heat. Dicke is the programme's scientific director.
All the researchers are working with a plant for which there is already a great deal of information - the model crop Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale-cress - to facilitate comparison of the interaction between the plant and the different sources of disease. Wageningen geneticists have now ordered 340 different varieties of thale-cress from all four corners of the world in order to ensure they have as much genetic variation as possible. Seven groups will now go on to screen the thale-cress for specific stress factors. The results will be entered in a central database, after which the bioinformatics scientists among the participants will be able to link properties to genes to their heart's content. The Utrecht researcher Corné Pieterse will expose the thale-cress to several stress factors as he suspects there are plant genes capable of keeping a lid on several diseases.
The Wageningen groups involved in the programme are Entomology, Nematology, Plant Breeding, Genetics, Plant Physiology and Biometris. They are collaborating with geneticists from Utrecht, Groningen and Amsterdam. There are also eight plant breeding companies and three biotech companies involved, including Keygene, Monsanto and Royal Van Zanten. They are particularly interested in the application of the knowledge to crops like tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and chrysanthemums.