8 February 2013

Closing PlantComMistra seminar

At a recent seminar, the results from the PlantComMistra research programme were summarised. Benefits from the programme have included better knowledge of plants’ own defences against pests.

The ability of plants to communicate by means of chemical substances has been known since the 1970s. These airborne plant signals can affect individual specimens, making them both less attractive to harmful insect pests and more attractive to the insects’ natural enemies. Further knowledge of this phenomenon could, it was thought, benefit agriculture by reducing the need for chemical pesticides. This was the starting point for the PlantComMistra research programme in 2006.

How barley seedlings communicate

At the end of 2012, some 30 people gathered at Stockholm University to find out about the seven years’ research. They included researchers who had worked on the programme and representatives of the farm and business sectors and public agencies. One key part of PlantComMistra has been to study plant communication in barley, an important crop that is subject to frequent aphid attacks. This research was conducted both in the laboratory and in the field, but how the chemical signals concerned affect the seedlings is not yet understood in detail, relates PlantComMistra’s Programme Director Lisbeth Jonsson, a Professor of Plant Physiology at Stockholm University.

‘We’ve developed a model that explains what probably takes place in a seedling when it receives signals. But further research is required for a full understanding of how the system works,’ she says.

Potential of new cultivation methods

Another question the researchers have studied is the impact of new cultivation methods. Results from PlantComMistra show that growing mixed varieties of barley together can boost this crop’s resistance to aphids, compared with a field where only one barley variety is grown.

While the morning session of the seminar was devoted to practical scientific results, during the afternoon the participants had a chance to discuss the long-term effects of the programme. There will be a growing need to research and develop new chemical-free methods of plant protection in the years ahead, Jonsson maintains. Not least climate change will cause more numerous insect attacks, by more insect species, as temperatures rise. At the same time, a directive is being implemented in the EU that entails more stringent restrictions on the use of pesticides.

‘Plant protection and alternatives to chemical pesticides are, more than ever, an urgent area of research,’ Lisbeth Jonsson says.

Text: Henrik Lundström, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

A longer account of PlantComMistra will be included in Mistra’s Annual Review, to be published in spring 2013.

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