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Pest Control: Restoring Natural Plant Defenses

Oct 05, 2015 02:14 PM EDT
Attract and Reward Concept
This diagram illustrates how nectar can enhance the survival and efficiency of predators. This would allow for a more stable biocontrol population.
(Photo : Stenberg et al./Trends in Plant Science 2015)

One unfortunate outcome of specialized plant breeding over recent decades has been that left plants are defenseless and mute – meaning they have been inadvertiently stripped of their vital odors which they use to communicate with other plants and to attract protective pest-eating predators seeking to make a meal out of them. Now, scientists are exploring options aimed at strengthening plants for more sustatainable agriculture. 

"Wild plants commonly emit natural odors when they are damaged that attract natural enemies of pest insects -- even as humans we smell it when our neighbor is mowing the lawn. Odors can carry very precise information," Martin Heil, one of the study's co-authors, said in a news release. "Agriculture has bred such defenses out of crops, and since these odors have no negative effects on human consumers, we want to replace what the plant would already be doing."

One way to do so would be to bring back the natural odors and nectar found in wild plants. An alternative method would be to plant crops alongside other plant species that attract these carnivore predators and repel pests. This method, however, also has its flaws and doesn't always yield a 100 percent success rate. Heil and his colleagues are also working to create mechanical dispensers that would release the carnivore-calling odors and nectars. This would solve the problems of intercropping, reduce the need for insecticides, and be easier than breeding new plants.

"New regulations and changing consumer demands are gradually improving the prospects for more sustainable agriculture," Heil added in the release. "This provides a ready market if we can give crops back their own immune system, either by breeding, genetic engineering, or replacing the traits artificially."

Their findings were recently published in Trends in Plant Science.

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