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Crop Improvement for Food Security

Trait selection for yield stability and disease resistance

Securing food for the future

Under current environmental conditions, our ability to produce plant biomass is limited by environmental stress factors, especially droughts and diseases.

Improving plant disease resistance has to be a top research priority if we are to improve food productivity by the required 70-100% in order to feed the world population in 2050. Our research contributes to food security through innovation in plant disease control, plant resistance to abiotic stress and improvements in nutrient uptake and the nutritional profiles of crops.

Disease resistance

Much of our research is focused around a cereals disease research programme, which aims to help farmers control diseases of Irish and International importance, including Septoria tritici blotch of wheat, Fusarium head blight disease of barley and wheat, net blotch disease of barley, take-all of wheat and barley and mildew disease of wheat and barley. We identify plant genes, including orphan genes, receptors and transcription factors, that enhance disease resistance and develop markers for these genes that aid breeders expedite and refine their breeding programmes. Some of the identified genes give broad-spectrum resistance and we work with industry partners to transfer these to non-host crops via a GM approach.

In complimentary research, we work to isolate and identify endophytic fungi that control disease. We identify fungal effectors that contribute to virulence/avirulence in the causal agents of Septoria tritici blotch disease and Fusarium head blight disease and determine the cognate receptors in plants. This research highlights new targets for disease control via mutagenesis or host-induced silencing of pathogen genes.

Abiotic Stress resistance and crop establishment

From the abiotic stress resistance perspective, we isolate and identify fungi that improve abiotic stress resistance in barley and wheat and determine their potential as commercial products for enhancing crop establishment, stress resistance and nutrient uptake. By studying water uptake, we aim to improve the drought resistance of crops. We use high throughput diagnostic assays to screen for genotypic resistance to abiotic stress tolerance, thus greatly improving the speed and efficacy with which we can identify new germplasm of interest to breeders.