UF Research to Help Plants Cope with Parasitic Nematodes

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Parasitic nematodes are responsible for about $125 billion in annual crop loss worldwide, and they can cause farmers to lose up to 80% of their tomato yield.

parasitic nematodes
Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS: Peter DiGennaro, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of entomology and nematology, will work with researchers at North Carolina State University to manage the impacts of parasitic nematodes on tomatoes.

“The situation with nematodes is exacerbated by an emerging concern in agriculture: the effect of warming nighttime temperatures. This unprecedented trend is causing critical challenges to crops,” said University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) scientist Peter DiGennaro.

DiGennaro and two colleagues from North Carolina (N.C.) State University were awarded $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation and $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct the research.

Researchers will study how the genome – all of the genetic material – in tomato plants alters the behavior of the plant and pathogens during those increasingly warmer evenings.

Plants have adapted well over the years to a consistent global temperature difference between day and night. This difference has started to shrink in the past few decades, however.

“Increasing nighttime temperatures, even as little as four degrees, have been connected to reduced yield, biomass and grain quality as well as disease severity,” said DiGennaro, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of entomology and nematology.

Growers are limited in how they can control nematodes, DiGennaro said. They can apply nematicides or pesticides or grow tomatoes that resist the microscopic worm-like pests.

The research will help develop new ways to grow crops that are more resilient to nematode damage and increasing temperatures.

“We also see broader impacts in the future as an outcome of this research. We can identify types of tomato plants that are more resilient to warmer climates. We also want to elucidate the molecular biology behind the nematodes’ response to tomato plants under warmer nighttime temperatures,” DiGennaro said. “Understanding the nematode and the plant paves the way towards targeting the parasite directly. We are more interested in the plant genes than the nematode genes.

“We want to know how plants, through their genes, control their responses to nematodes and higher temperatures.”

DiGennaro will conduct the research with Dahlia Nielsen, an associate professor of biological sciences and Colleen Doherty, an associate professor of molecular and structural biochemistry, both at N.C. State.