Researchers continue to work on tools to help farmers fight soybean cyst nematodes (SCN).
Thomas Baum, professor and chairman of Iowa State University’s Department of Plant Pathology, says they are working on how nematodes and plants interact at molecular level.
“It is very sneaky and complex,” he says about a how nematode infects a plant.
Nematodes don’t move within a plant they affect, Baum explains. To stay alive, they release a chemical that changes the cell they live on.
That chemical interferes with the cell’s normal function, and it spreads to other nearby cells. That means the nematode can feed off of many cells.
The nematode does not kill the cell it lives off because it would die as well, he adds.
Baum has identified some of the genes that get changed and how the nematodes make them change.
So far, the researchers have characterized one micro RNA strain the nematode uses to trigger the gene to switch its function.
RNA are biological molecules that perform multiple vital roles in the coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes.
ISU has licensed the micro RNA gene to a company that was purchased by Monsanto.
Baum says they are developing research that can be marketed in future years.
Researchers know of the other chemicals that affect nematode and plant interaction. Baum says they working to further characterize them.
He works with nematodes with the plant Arabidopsis. Researchers use the plant since it has a relatively small genome.
Baum says they transfer what they learn with the Arabidopsis plant into other plants, including soybeans.
At the moment, any solution using micro RNA so far is a genetically modified organism. He says some future opportunities, which include genomic editing, might be considered GMOs.
The first treatments using this approach likely will make soybeans less susceptible to nematode damage, Baum says. Using a combination of treatments could help a plant become resistant to the pest.
He method is similar but different than using RNA(i).
In RNA(i) technology, one organism has it and transfers the RNA with bad information to another organism and switches genes off or on in the target organism.
In the nematode and plant interaction, Baum says a plant would have RNA(i) in it. When a nematode attacks a plant, the RNA(i) would be transferred to the nematode changing its gene’s expression.
With his work, the plant would have the micro RNA and would not change when the nematode released RNA into the plant’s cells.
He says the RNA(i) approach also could be used to control nematodes.
Early funding for Baum’s research came from the soybean checkoff. The USDA and National Science Foundation also funded some of the work.
“The worms are pain to work with,” he says.
However, he says the amount of damage the nematodes cause to crops justifies the need to control the pest.