Soybeans make up about two-thirds of the world’s animal feed and more than half the edible oil consumed in the United States. But soybeans are also under attack by parasites called cyst nematodes.

Cyst nematodes hijack the natural processes of the soybean plants to feed themselves instead of the plant. These nematodes pose a billion-dollar threat to soybean agriculture, so they’re a very serious concern for people in the industry.

That’s why researchers have been working on understanding how cyst nematodes work for the last 15 years. Led by the University of Missouri, the research team has made some big discoveries about how the nematodes eat and how to prevent them from doing so.

“These parasites damage root systems by creating a unique feeding cell within the roots of their hosts and leeching nutrients out of the soybean plant,” said researcher Melissa Goellner Mitchum, an associate professor at the University of Missouri. “This can lead to stunting, wilting, and yield loss for the plant. We wanted to explore the pathways and mechanisms cyst nematodes use to commandeer soybean plants.”

The nematodes use chemical signals that trick the plants’ genes into feeding them instead of the plants. But in the lab, the team managed to “switch off” the genes in question, preventing them from feeding the nematodes. The researchers are now working on genetic tools that would prevent the chemical reactions from happening, thus increasing resistance to nematodes.

“If we can block those…pathways nematodes use to overtake the soybean plant, then we can enhance resistance for this very valuable global food source,” Mitchum said.

This process has the potential to radically increase soybean yields. If this technique works for cyst nematodes, it could lead the way to blocking nematodes from feeding on other plants, and perhaps even stopping other parasites from impacting plants as well.

Finding ways to engineer plants that are more resistant to parasites is a step in the direction away from pesticides and herbicides, which have a lot of unpleasant side effects including harm to species such as pollinators and birds. Such engineered plants would be cheaper to produce and maintain, which would have a number of added benefits for the agricultural industry, and likely for the world at large.

Photo CC-BY United Soybean Board