What inspires plant scientists and why is their job so important? Toby Bruce explains:
Why did you want to be a plant scientist?
I have always been interested in nature and it is fascinating to explore how it works. I am further motivated by humanitarian and environmental issues. If we can learn how to protect harvests from the insect pests that attack our crops, then we can safeguard food security. Agriculture already uses more land and water than any other human activity, it uses precious soil, fertilizer and energy resources and therefore minimizing crop losses can reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture.
Can you explain what your job involves?
My job has a variety of quite different activities but the ultimate aim is to better understand the science of insect-plant interactions in order to devise improved way of managing insect pests of crops. The work ranges from attending prestigious meetings and writing or reviewing scientific and other literature to wading around on hands and knees in mud inspecting experimental crop plots for insects! There is also sophisticated analytical chemistry to identify bioactive plant and insect chemicals coupled with experimental research with insects to characterize insect responses to the chemicals. Student supervision is becoming increasingly important.
What are the pest’s/crop enhancements that you are working on?
Currently I’m working on maize varieties that have a “smart” defense trait – they respond to stemborer insect egg laying by releasing smells that attract parasitic wasps that then attack the pest! We are also exploring if formulating an insect-killing fungus with an aggregation pheromone can be used in a lure-and-kill approach to control pea and bean weevil, an important pest of beans. Previously I helped to develop orange wheat blossom midge resistant wheat and midge monitoring pheromone traps in the UK and evaluated experimental GM wheat that released aphid alarm pheromone.
Can you describe how damaging these pests can be for farmers?
The maize stemborers (Chilo partellus) can cause up to 80% crop loss. The caterpillars burrow inside the stems of plants and cause them to fall over (lodge). They are one of the most serious pests of maize in sub-Saharan Africa and maize varieties that could withstand the pest attack would be of major benefit to smallholder farmers in Africa. The pea and bean weevil (Sitona lineatus) has evolved resistance to the pyrethroid insecticides that used to be used to control it in the UK and new solutions to control it are urgently needed. It is one of the reasons for variable yields in bean crops. Orange wheat blossom midge used to be a more serious pest of wheat in the UK but a combination of resistant varieties and pheromone traps to rationalize insecticide use has led to much better control of this pest and improved quality of harvested grain. Cereal aphids are an ongoing problem. They transmit barley yellow dwarf virus and we have recently shown that they make wheat more susceptible to fusarium head blight disease.
Why is your profession important in the challenge to feed the world?
Crops are far more vulnerable to attack and loss than many people realize. We have become used to high quality, low price food and often overlook the challenges involved in growing the crops the food came from. If we are not careful there are many pests that could wipe out our food production. Anyone who has grown vegetables in their back garden may have experienced pests, weeds and diseases, which, on a small scale, give an indication of what farmers are up against.
What inspires you about your job?
It is like being an explorer. We are always pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge in the quest for new discoveries and the benefits they could have for humanity.
Toby is a scientist at the Rothamstead Research center, specializing in insect chemical ecology, biological interactions, agriculture and food systems and crop protection.