News in Brief

A nose becomes fancier, an armyworm answer, and plants against cancer

Scientists take different approaches to tackle crop pests, and a well-known plant produces a protein that inhibits tumour growth in mammals.

A nose made of light could illuminate plant health

How do you monitor plant health? One method is to sniff. When plants are attacked by pests they release volatile organic compounds to signal to other plants that they need to prepare their defences. If you could smell the compounds you could get a warning that trouble has arrived as soon as the plants know. But that’s not easy.

Human noses aren’t good enough, and electronic noses have their problems as Professor David Webb of Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies said: “Most electronic noses use electrochemical sensors, which suffer from sensitivity issues, sensor drift/aging effects and lack specificity. We intend to address this by building on the fast-moving technology of photonics – the science of light – whilst collaborating with scientists in other disciplines.”

A new £200,000 project has been announced for physicists at Aston University to collaborate with agricultural academics from Harper Adams University.

Dr Joe Roberts from Harper Adams University said: “With the projected increase in the global population there is increasing pressure on the agricultural sector to achieve higher crop yields. Reducing crop losses within existing production systems will improve food security without increasing resource use.”

“We intend to establish an interdisciplinary community of agricultural science, optical sensing and machine learning experts to develop novel plant health monitoring platforms that enhance agricultural production through localised pest and disease monitoring to detect hotspots.”

More information here.


How can Bangladeshi farmers fight crops pests in a safer way?

Fall armyworm infestation on maize. Image: CABI.

Fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) is a pest that can devastate many crops including maize, rice, and cotton. This is a threat to farming in Bangladesh, where maize is now a major crop. There is a solution that works and is safe, biological control agents.

These are parasitoids, which are parasites that kill the host as part of their life-cycle. Get these into the fields, and the armyworms cease to be a problem, but how do you get them into the field?

CABI scientists working in conjunction with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), proposes the establishment of local Biological Control Agent (BCA) hubs in Bangladesh. The scientists, who published their findings in the CABI Agriculture and Bioscience journal, say a non-linear business model could reverse the current low uptake of safer-to-use and more environmentally friendly BCAs to fight fall armyworm by maize farmers in the country.

The scientists argue that biological control is seen as a potential management strategy for fall armyworm as it can provide long-term control without harming the environment and human health. With the appropriate resources and effort, BCAs can be effective for the management of fall armyworm in maize as well as other at-risk crops.

More information here.


A protein found in rice has anti-cancer properties

Scientists working with rice, Oryza sativa, and thale cress, Arabiopsis thaliana, have found they can produce a protein that can slow down cancer. The protein appears to help fix an miRNA deficiency in cells.

Cells turn cancerous when they start dividing and don’t stop. Micro-RNA, miRNA, usually stops the cell cycle, preventing a runaway effect, but when cells turn cancerous there’s a lack of miRNA in tumours.

Prof Du Peng and colleagues have identified RDR1 protein as playing a key in inhibiting the proliferation of cancer cells by targeting the cell cycle. To see if the protein could help in animals the scientists cloned the gene and introduced it into mammalian cells.

The authors believe that RDR1 works by fixing cells ability to create miRNA. This means that the process can specifically target and interfere with the cycle process in cancer cells without influence on non-cancer cells.

It is one step in producing a treatment for some cancers, but a promising step. It does not mean that you can cure cancer by eating more rice.

More information here.

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