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23 July, 2020

Scientists track hitchhiking crop diseases with three quarter of a million from NASA

At the end of last month, the largest dust cloud ever observed by satellites silently crossed the Atlantic from the Sahara in North Africa to the Americas. Now, a multidisciplinary, Cornell-led team of scientists will unite under a $750 000 NASA grant to use remote sensing, climate and earth system computer modelling and the latest research in plant pathology and genomics to track the plant pathogens that hitched rides with the dust particles.


NASA remote sensing satellites will help Cornell University scientists track plant pathogens riding the globe with dust particles

Principal Investigator and Assistant Professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ School of Integrative Plant Science in Geneva, Katie Gold, said remote sensing would potentially mitigate the impacts of plant disease on the global food supply.

“We lose anywhere from 15 to 30 per cent of the global harvest to plant diseases annually” Ms Gold said. “In 2020 people still die because they don’t have access to food, because of losses due to plant disease.”

“It’s well documented that plant pathogens in the soil become airborne.

“If the origins and landing spots of specific pathogens can be better predicted through NASA’s Earth Observing Satellites, farmers can be advised on how to avoid practices that would increase their spread.”

Co-Investigator Natalie Mahowald said the pathogen Fusarium oxysporum (F. oxy), endemic to six continents, would serve as a model system for the study.

F. oxy is economically important in that it causes fusarium wilt in more than 100 plant species” Ms Mahowald said.

F. oxy can survive in the soil for over 20 years, leading farmers to abandon infected fields.”

Ms Gold said scientists would use known fusarium wilt incident sites and computer modelling of dust events to determine a link between the two.

“Disease is the result of a susceptible host interacting with a virulent pathogen within a conducive environment” Ms Gold said.

“Firstly, our researchers will use data taken from NASA’s satellites showing vegetation patterns and combine this with what is already known about F. oxy to map and model areas where crops are susceptible to fusarium wilt in real time.

“Then, simulations of dust transport, informed by decades of meteorological and remote sensing data, will allow the team to link the origins and destinations of dust plumes with areas most conducive to fusarium wilt outbreaks and susceptible crops” Ms Gold said.

Ms Mahowald said simulations would be conducted over 40 years.

“As researchers, we must be able to compare in detail what happened during one aerosol transport event versus another, as well as what we call climatology, which is the time and location of these events” Ms Mahowald said.

Ms Mahowald said the team would then apply genomics to compare genomes of F. oxy samples from different sites to validate modelling results.

“Such comparisons will answer two questions. Whether samples from two different sites of fusarium wilt outbreaks are genetically linked, and whether those connections are backed up by the dust flow patterns that the aerial transport models reveal” Ms Mahowald said.

“It leads us to the final goal of integration. Can we take these remote sensing data streams, the Earth system and aerosol transport modelling and comparative genomics to develop a fully formed foundation for a global disease surveillance system? Critically, can we use this study’s framework and apply it to other plant pathogens?”

NASA’s Release of Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science Interdisciplinary Science grant is for three years and other co-investigators include Ryan Pavlick, an imaging spectroscopy technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and Sharifa Crandall, Assistant Professor of Soilborne Disease Dynamics and Management at Pennsylvania State University. 

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