A winning, corny talk about helping sick crops heal themselves

September 8, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs

Let’s see by a show of hands how many of you
are looking forward to our lunch today. All right. All right. Now keep your hand up if you’d like to be
able to eat lunch in 20 years. OK. That’s going to be one, two, let’s say just
about everybody. My name is Katie Murphy whereas my students
call me the Corn Queen and I’m working to ensure food for our future the unfortunate
reality is that 20 years from now we expect two billion more people on this planet. That is 2 billion more mouths to feed. Given our current production levels, we simply
cannot produce enough food. Lunch in the future could be a luxury. Now my graduate research at UC Davis is working
to solve this problem. How we grow more food using less resources? We stop losing crops to plant disease just
like humans, plants get sick and when they do our food dies in the field and never makes
it to your plate. Now the nasty mold on the ear of corn that
you see up here is caused by a fungal disease. Fungus causes 10 percent crop loss of corn
every year. Now if we’re not having a nice buttery ear
of corn for lunch I can guarantee you that we’re eating something that was made with
corn byproduct or we’re eating something that has eaten corn. It is the backbone of the American food supply. What a 10 percent crop loss looks like is
a corn field that covers the entire state of Florida rendered totally inedible. If we can rescue some of this crop from disease,
we can grow more food. Now my graduate research has uncovered a new
group of chemicals that corn makes in response to this disease. Here, corn is acting as its own doctor sensing
that it’s under attack, diagnosing itself with disease and producing its own medicines,
antibiotics really to fight off this fungus. Interestingly we’ve only ever seen these chemicals
in corn not in any other plant we now know the structure of these chemicals the genes
that control the production and how they’re working as antibiotics to fight off disease. I did so by taking the genes from corn and
putting them into a bacteria that I can grow in the lab in order to make these chemicals
and figure out what they do. Now that I have this knowledge of these naturally
produced plant antibiotics, we can begin to reduce crop loss due to disease. Now they do call me the Corn Queen, but I
love all plants and so using genetics and breeding we can make corn varieties and other
crops that can make their own medicines. This will reduce our current pesticide use,
grow us more food and generate stronger plants to ensure food for the future. Thank you.