UCD Earth Institute

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Crops for the Future

Plants are sources of food, fuel and medicine and are major determinants of human and animal health, and ecosystem sustainability.

They underpin agriculture and food production and environmental management. They provide medicinal compounds and raw materials for a diverse spectrum of industries.

Plant scientists at UCD Earth Institute are leading the integration of existing and new knowledge regarding plant growth, development, stress resistance and exploitation.

Our research focus on selecting for crop traits that support low inputs, yield stability and disease resistance as well as producing value-added products from crops and trees, including fuel and wood.

As new markets based on plant cell factories emerge, we study the production of human and animal vaccines in plant cell-based reactors.
Finally, we are interested in predicting and evaluating crop productivity and performance under future climatic conditions.

Key words:
Crop Improvement, Disease Resistance, Adaptation to Future Climates, Farming, Plant-based Reactors, Plant Bioprocessing, Food and Feed Security, Land-Use.

Earth Institute academics working in this area:

 

Research impacts

Recent events, such as the 2008 food price crisis, have focused global attention on the agriculture and food sectors. In particular, many countries have become increasingly concerned with the issue of ensuring the security of their food supply and one key element of this is who has power within the food supply chain.

Research carried out by Prof. Alan Renwick at UCD Earth Institute examined three dimensions of power – Economic, Political, and Natural Resources – and explored where power currently lies in world agriculture, how this might change in the future and the implications of these changes.

The US and the EU are shown to dominate world agriculture in terms of economics and politics, but are potentially vulnerable in terms of their possession of natural resources.

The research highlights that in the shorter term, further improvements in resource use efficiency (water, fertiliser and energy) are needed to sustain current levels of production. However, as traditional resources become more scarce, alternative practices (crops) will need to be developed and adopted.

As humans we depend heavily on plants for food and fuel. That means anything which threatens the health of crop plants – such as disease or climate change – can also threaten food and energy security.

At UCD Earth Institute, Dr Fiona Doohan and her team are developing environmentally friendly and sustainable ways to boost the adaptability of crops to stresses. Wheat is an important focus of our researchers, and they have identified several key genes and proteins involved in the crop’s defence against disease and cold tolerance.

Dr Doohan is also working with Teagasc to develop technologies for genetic modification. Economically important trees are also under threat from disease, and we are exploring how larch, oak and ash respond to microbial attackers.

On the flip side, Doohan is exploring how we can use some microbes themselves as plant defenders, and particularly how the bacterium Pseudomonas could be sprayed on wheat and barley crops to help ward off other disease-causing microbes.

Microbes may also be able to help us extract more value from crops too – this research is finding that treating low-value or ‘waste’ plant material with Fusarium oxysporum could yield higher-value products such as bioethanol and highlighting how breeding programmes could enhance ‘multi-functional‘ crops.