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The Daily Tar Heel

NCSU Wins Funds to Study Crop Killers

North Carolina State University recently received a $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research that could prevent billions of dollars in damage to U.S. crops.

The research will aim primarily at dealing with the genetics of parasites like nematodes and developing environmentally safe control methods to eliminate crop damage.

David Bird, N.C. State associate professor of plant pathology, said parasites affect more than 2,000 species of plants.

"There is a wide range of crops being damaged - from tobacco to sweet potatoes, and vegetables - it's virtually everything," Bird said.

By identifying and mapping the genes of living organisms, Bird said he hopes to better understand the genetics of nematodes and plants.

Nematodes cause plant infections responsible for about $3 billion in U.S. crop damage each year.

"Based on understanding the interactions, the goal is to find weak links in the host-parasite interactions that can be targeted for parasitic nematode control," Bird said.

He added that the current strategy of dealing with damaging organisms is using chemicals, but they are being withdrawn because of the hazards they pose to humans and the environment.

Julie Haigler, N.C. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, said she favors designing environmentally safer controls than potentially toxic methods.

"Anytime you are able to target the pest closely, it is better for everyone involved," Haigler said.

The grant is part of the NSF's Plant Genome Research Project, which studies the genetic structure and function of plants in conjunction with their role in agriculture, health and the environment.

In the past, the NSF has awarded multi-university grants, and although this grant is exclusively for N.C. State, Bird said there will be collaboration with other institutions.

Scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill, Santa Fe Institute and Washington University in St. Louis are participating in the research.

Edward Bissette, a N.C. tobacco farmer, said he favors the research because potentially it could save him both time and money.

"If they could eradicate the nematodes, it would save me $40,000 a year in chemicals."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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