EAST LANSING, MICH., March 20 - Researchers at Michigan State University are cautioning against a possible downside to the increased development of non-food bioenergy crops – greater susceptibility to plant viruses.

MSU plant biologist Carolyn Malmstrom says that any effort to bioengineer a perennial crop grown as a biofuel feedstock to include the high-production traits of an annual crop like corn must bring with it a guard against unintended results.

She notes that in nature, perennials grow more slowly and have developed defenses against invading viruses. While wild-growing perennial plants in nature are usually better equipped to fight off invading viruses, when they do get infected, they can serve as virus reservoirs, giving pathogens a holding area.

Annuals, however, are designed to grow quickly and have a reduced need to defend themselves against viruses. However, without man-made pest controls, the shorter-term plants could “amplify” the viruses and insects that carry them.

Combining traits from each to produce fast-growing non-food bioenergy perennials could cost those plants the longstanding defenses against viruses they previously possessed, Malmstrom says.

She says that during the course of domesticating wild-growing perennials and engineering them to grow faster, developers could find that without some bioengineered safeguards or externally applied controls, they are left with a plant that could be a long-term virus reservoir that could also amplify those viruses.

“This all-in-one combination could increase virus pressure in crop areas unless mitigated,” Malmstrom said.

She says research is growing on the ecology of plant viruses and the interaction between wild-growing perennials and agricultural crops. While most of the data on plant viruses has come from the study of agricultural crops, researchers know that they now must expand their study of virus ecology as it exists in perennials in nature.

The growing emergence of plants in nature being developed for bioenergy is ratcheting up the need to better understand the role plant viruses play in natural ecosystems, Malmstrom said.

Another factor that she says is driving the research is the question of whether plant viruses can be used to commit agricultural terrorism.



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