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How this Norwich scientist is working to avert a global food disaster

PUBLISHED: 11:28 21 January 2020 | UPDATED: 12:17 21 January 2020

Local solutions to a global problem: Norwich-based Peter van Esse is one of the scientists working to build rust resistance in soybean plants, a fungus that severely blights soy crops      Photo: Peter van Esse

Local solutions to a global problem: Norwich-based Peter van Esse is one of the scientists working to build rust resistance in soybean plants, a fungus that severely blights soy crops Photo: Peter van Esse

Peter van Esse

Scientists are racing to stop plant diseases that could devastate staple crops like wheat, corn and potato - resulting in food shortages around the world. Biologist Dr Peter van Esse of The Sainsbury Laboratory is one of them.

Asian soybean rust is a devastating disease affecting one of the world's most important food crops, costing Brazilian farmers $2billion each year.     Picture: Peter van EsseAsian soybean rust is a devastating disease affecting one of the world's most important food crops, costing Brazilian farmers $2billion each year. Picture: Peter van Esse

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world. Read their stories here.

How is your work making a difference to the world today? The UN categorises plant pathogens (diseases) as a disaster, so it's a crucial area of science relating to a bigger question: How can we sustain ourselves on this planet?

If a fungus was to take hold in the wheat-producing region of Punjab, India; it would be similar to a natural disaster like a tsunami or a medium-sized asteroid.

Our biggest crops are already affected by diseases that could become catastrophic — my job is to avoid that.

That sounds quite dramatic. The Irish potato famine of 1845-49 killed over 1 million and up to two million more migrated; people might not think that could happen again, but it could.

Plant diseases will always find new ways to adapt to plant immunity or pesticides, it's simply the nature of what they do. We have to stay one step ahead.

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How are you preparing for this threat? I lead two groups of scientists at The Sainsbury Laboratory at Norwich Research Park; we're working to create resistance against 'rust', a type of fungus affecting soybean plants.

Soybeans are the backbone of Brazil's economy — it's exported to Asia for food, and Europe for animal feed - but the fungus is costing Brazilian farmers $2billion each year.

Right now, the only thing farmers can do is spray crops with pesticides. Brazil is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, so it would be a huge victory if we could harness the plants' natural defence systems to identify attackers more efficiently.

Plants have really good immune systems for recognising invaders like microbes or insects — but this system fails to recognise pathogen invaders.

We realised that relatives of soybean plants can already successfully recognise invaders like rust. For one of these, the pigeon pea, we've shown that this recognition can be transferred to soybean, meaning that in the future soybean could recognise soybean rust and use its immune system to take care of the invader.

If plant diseases are always adapting to overcome resistance, don't you have your work cut out for you? Yes, creating durable resistance is a bit like hacking the passcode on your phone. If you have a one number code, it will be anything between 1 to 10, which will take me 30 seconds to crack.

But if your code has four numbers, I'll be working all afternoon.

Because plant pathogens can quickly overcome single resistance sources, we must build more robust solutions, a bit like having a longer password for security.

If we introduce four types of resistance into the plant to recognise a disease before it spreads through a crop, it'll be resistant for much longer.

That gives us more time to come up with the next solution!

READ MORE: 'Watching a volcano erupt is humbling — they remind us how small we really are': A Norfolk volcanologist talks about living with uncertainty.

What are your favourite things about working at Norwich Research Park? People come here from all over the world for a reason - the level of research here is world leading.

I'm a Dutch scientist working on a Brazilian problem, for American non-profit 2Blades Foundation, from a laboratory in Norfolk.

That's kind of crazy! International collaborators came all the way to Norwich, because they're confident we will find the solution.

It's a very exciting place because everything that gets talked about on the Park is understood to be confidential. That makes it much easier to have casual, open chats with people from the other institutions about the projects they're working on, and the ways we might be able to help them.

What are your hopes for the future of science? We're standing at a crossroads when it comes to the planet's survival. The time for being timid is over.

Our generation has to be the one to pull us through and it's a huge challenge — we'll need everybody, and we'll need science.

But luckily, I believe we can do it, and Norwich is one of the places where that's happening. I'm optimistic about science and all it can achieve.

Peter van Esse is a biologist working for the American non-profit 2Blades Foundationat The Sainsbury Laboratory. Follow his work on Twitter @PetervanEsse.

READ MORE: Meet the doctor putting Norwich at the cutting-edge of neonatal research

Explore the rest of the Norwich Research Park Lifechangers series here.

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