North Texas Daily

UNT professor works to improve plants’ defenses

UNT professor works to improve plants’ defenses

October 17
00:53 2012

Nadia Hill / Senior Staff Writer

A UNT professor is out to save the world, one plant at a time.

Biology professor Jyoti Shah researches and studies common plant diseases in order to engineer a universal defense mechanism for harvested and flowering plants.

His nearly 20 years of research include improving the way plants deal with stress and fighting diseases.

“Food is something humans are always longing for,” Shah said. “Whether it’s poor soil, poor drainage or too much heat, there’s always a problem with not getting enough food. I’m looking to improve plant product.”

Through almost $1 million in grants, the National Science Foundation and the USDA fund the research Shah and his coworkers’ conduct, which also includes analyzing the way farmers harvest their plants.

U.S. farmers typically utilize a no-till farming style, which leaves behind plant stubble for the next crop. This makes fields more vulnerable to bacterial plant infection and stress, Shah said.

“Understanding how they cope with stress allows us to develop better strategies,” Shah said. “Sometimes it’s better growing practices, supplements or pesticides, but there are better ways. We try to understand how plants turn on their defenses.”

One of Shah’s former students, Joe Louis, worked under Shah to determine how plants protect themselves against aphids, tiny insects that cause damage to host plants.

Louis worked with Shah for four years before graduating in 2011 with a Ph.D. in plant molecular biology.

He believes Shah’s work is important because its results will identify the ways plants deal with stress, which can then be used to prevent them from major bacterial infection.

“In addition, this will reduce our dependence on toxic chemicals to control these pathogens,” Louis said. “And thus improve our environmental quality of public and animal health.”

Identifying the defense mechanism’s trigger point involves a process similar to receiving an immunization.

Shah’s colleague Ratnesh Chaturvedi is directly involved with identifying and testing the specific compound needed to “vaccinate” the plants.

“Once you know the compound, you can engineer plants,” Chaturvedi said. “You don’t need other pesticides, and you can protect plants without them.”

After applying the compound to five or six leaves, Chaturvedi “challenges” the plants with pathogens to test the compound’s effectiveness.

The entire process can take about three months and about 900 leaves.

“This method is important for crops like wheat and corn,” Chaturvedi said. “It can help to protect against pathogens and increase sustainability for food.”

While Shah does not have a definitive timeline for finishing his research, it has improved with advancements in technology, he said.

“We didn’t know their defense mechanisms because the tools weren’t there,” Shah said. “I now think about this while driving or at the airport. I do it because of how the scientific system works. It’s a passion.”

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