Four Cornell projects receive $1.65 million from USDA

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Melissa Osgood

Uncovering novel compounds from soil microbes that could be used to manage weeds. Understanding the genetics of how insects develop resistance to engineered crops that express a bacterial insecticide. These are two of four Cornell projects that were awarded more than $1.65 million in total by the United States Department of Agriculture for research on plant health, production and resilience.

The grants, announced June 2, were part of $14.5 million in funds handed out through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Foundation program, authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill and administered by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“It is vital that we invest in agricultural research that meets the critical needs of farmers and ensures that we all enjoy safe, healthy, abundant and affordable food,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who serves on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. “The Cornell University agriculture research programs supported by this funding will advance our understanding of plant health, improve productivity and promote a vital sector of the New York economy.”

The projects:

  • Michael Milgroom, professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology, received $499,980 to study the ecological significance of aflatoxin, a carcinogen produced by fungi that contaminates food worldwide. Milgroom argues aflatoxin is a poison in food but evolved to benefit fungi, and its effects in fungal ecology are largely unknown. The project will determine how aflatoxin affects the growth and survival of fungi under a variety of environmental conditions and how it benefits fungi.
  • A grant of $272,078 to Jenny Kao-Kniffin, an assistant professor of horticulture and Antonio DiTommaso, professor of soil and crop sciences, will develop new ways to uncover novel compounds isolated from soil microorganisms that could be effective in weed management. Using DNA analysis of soil to isolate bacteria that produce weed-suppressing compounds, the researchers hope to grow microbes and isolate the beneficial compounds they make. Kao-Kniffin and DiTommaso may then design experiments to understand how such compounds might be applied in agriculture to suppress weeds. The project is a response to growing concern about herbicide resistance in cropping systems.
  • Ping Wang, associate professor of entomology, and Zhangjun Fei, associate professor of plant genetics at the Cornell-affiliated Boyce Thompson Institute, were awarded $499,900 to investigate the molecular genetic mechanism for insect resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) toxin Cry2Ab, a primary insecticidal protein expressed in insect-resistant transgenic crops. Bt crops now cover close to 200 million acres worldwide. Steady exposure has allowed several insect pests to evolve resistance to Bt toxins. The researchers hope to provide fundamental knowledge to manage insect resistance to Bt in agriculture.
  • Georg Jander, professor of molecular and chemical ecology at the Boyce Thompson Institute, received $379,000 to improve pest control strategies against green peach aphids, an important pest affecting many vegetable and fruit crops. Jander will focus on small molecules called cytokinins contained in aphid saliva that regulate many aspects of plant growth and development and may prolong the utility of aphid feeding sites. By understanding metabolic mechanisms through which these aphids maintain their feeding sites on plants, Jander hopes to improve pest control strategies.

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Krishna Ramanujan