Biotechnology gives plant breeders a leg up in ‘evolutionary arms race’ against crop diseases

wheat rust disease

While crop pests and diseases can be spread by environmental factors, such as the wind, they also move into new places via global trade, traffic and transport. As the world prepares to feed its expected population of more than nine billion people by 2050, preventing plant disease outbreaks is becoming more urgent.

Indeed, this has been recognized on a global scale with the United Nation’s declaration of 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health …. “There is a constant evolutionary battle between pathogens and their hosts,” Helen Fones, a plant pathologist from the University of Exeter, tells SciDev.Net. “Each continually evolves to overcome the latest strategy that the other has created to infect or resist infection.”

Related article:  Viewpoint: How New Zealand's biotech 'science deniers' hinder effort to fight climate change with GMO ryegrass

Some biochemists argue that the most effective protection against a pandemic is to avoid plants getting sick in the first place.

“Modern plant science has produced more targeted, efficient tools for crop breeding, allowing us to alter the genomes of crops,” Diana Horvath, president of the 2Blades Foundation, tells SciDev.Net.

Horvath says [2Blades] scientists can engineer seeds with gene stacks, where multiple resistance genes and modes of action make it much harder for a pathogen to infect the plant.

This multiple resistance approach for fighting infections is already seen in the biomedical world, she says, with AIDS ‘triple cocktail’ treatments and triple antibiotic ointments.

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