As a plant pathologist, people often chuckle and ask me if I enjoy killing plants.
Like a medical researcher who experiments on mice, I know that in the long run I’m doing a service to humanity by figuring out how to make pulses more resilient and in doing so, help feed the world.
Over the past 21 years I’ve been at the CDC, pulse pathology has come a long way. As I look back, the first 15 years I spent doing this was focused on foliar diseases. Since 2013, looking at root rot has become more important, and the advent of new molecular tools has certainly helped with that.
Root rots present major issues for peas and lentils in Canada. Historically, certain areas in France grew peas. France saw some major root rot problems, forcing many of those areas to abandon pea production for faba beans. If we do not do the research necessary to combat root rot in pea and lentil, the same thing may happen in Canada.
Thankfully, we’re making incremental progress on this in a number of ways.
We know what we don’t know. In pulses, there are many more unknowns than in cereals.
Cereals have had so much more research attention compared to pulses, which have traditionally been major crops in developing countries only. Thanks to efforts like ours at the CDC, we are learning more and stand at the brink of some major discoveries. I hope in a few years we can release a pea variety with improved Aphanomyces root rot resistance. It will be a significant step forward.
- We can see more than ever. We used to be able to study only the outside of a plant. We can now use new molecular tools to dig much deeper into the mechanisms of how pathogens work and how plants react to these pathogens. The cost of new molecular tools has come down enough for pulse pathologists like me to make extensive use of them. We can take a deep dive and we can better understand what is happening inside of a pulse plant.
- Time is on our side. Because we are making progress, we can hopefully avoid the disaster that was seen in French pea crops. In 20 years, I hope we know as much about host-pathogen interactions in pea and lentil as we know about them in model plants like Arabidopsis and its pathogens. We will be much better equipped to target genes that are important in improving resistance.