Diseases and pests in crops

We work on sustainable solutions to complex agricultural and horticultural problems caused by diseases and pests. Biological control and the use of resilient systems are examples of these solutions.

If agriculture is to be safe, healthy and sustainable, it is essential to have healthy crops; they play a role in producing sufficient quantities of healthy foods and contribute to the quality of life. Our research into disease and pest management for the agricultural and horticultural sectors focuses on the interaction between crops and the diseases and pests that affect them. We use our knowledge of this subject to enable successful and sustainable integrated crop protection to be applied in practice.

Sustainable crop protection

Integrated crop protection involves combining various sustainable crop protection methods in order to avoid diseases and pests or to suppress them. The aim is to harm the environment as little as possible. Chemical agents are used only to a very limited extent. 

The EU stimulates the use of integrated crop protection methods in order to make the agricultural and horticultural sectors less dependent on pesticides. According to European rules, integrated crop control should involve the following three steps in succession:

  1. Planning cultivation methods and choosing plants should involve preventive measures such as using disease-free seed, selecting resilient varieties and deploying resilient systems;
  2. During the growth period, the crop should be monitored carefully using, for example, Simulation Models and Decision Support Systems;
  3. If a disease or pest does threaten to affect a crop, the control method should be selected with care. If the only option is a pesticide, a biological one is preferred – together with mechanical and other non-chemical methods. Chemical means should be used only as a last resort.

Viruses and virus diseases

Plant viruses are extremely small pathogens but they can have a large and worldwide impact in  many important crops. Once infected with a virus, plantscrops can not be cured. The use of healthy seeds and young plants  and preventign virus infections are essential in controlling virus diseases.

Identification of plant viruses

Our research on plant viruses specifically focuses on the role and impact of plant viruses in various agricultural systems as well as ecosystems. This involves their identification, trying to understand why they cause diseases and studying how they spread, including their vectors like insects and fungi. For the correct identification of the virus problems we are also developing diagnostics (ELISA and PCR) and new, state of the art identification methodologies like Luminex, LAMP and Next Generation Sequencing)..

Our actively curated virus collection guarantees that important plant viruses remain available as reference material both research and third parties.

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Bacteria and bacterial diseases

From leaf spots through to wilting, cankers, and wet rot. Bacterial diseases occur in virtually all agricultural and horticultural crops. The symptoms may – depending on crop and pathogen – range from leaf spots through to wilting, cankers, and wet rot. Many of these diseases cause serious problems such as blackleg in potato and bacterial canker in tomato. Products for the control of bacterial diseases in plants, however, are hardly available. Our research focuses on development of diagnostic tools based onmolecular and microbial techniques to prevent disease outbreaks.

We also carry out research into the way in which the bacterium infects the plant, reproduces in the crop, and subsequently spreads itself, e.g., by planting material, insects and through aerosols. In our research we are using bacteria with a green fluorescent label. Finally, research is being carried out into the possibility to control the pathogen with bacteriophages and antagonists.

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Fungi and fungal diseases

Plant pathogenic fungi cause cultivation and economic problems in agriculture and horticulture. Examples are Phytophthora infestans in potato, Botrytis in bulbous plants, ornamental plants, (small) fruit, vegetables and agricultural crops, scabies in fruit crops, various leaf diseases in grains, but also soil-bound diseases such as Rhizoctonia, Pythium, Verticillium.

We work from the following perspectives on this important group of pathogens: biological control, resilient systems, genetics and decision support models.

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Pest insects

Pest insects cause yield losses in agricultural and horticultural crops through direct as well as indirect damage because they sometimes transmit pathogenic viruses. Our research focuses on the development of solutions for pests living above-ground as well as below-ground.

Semiochemicals

Important research lines are: utilisation of semiochemicals (attractants, pheromones, repellents), study and development of biological control agents such as entomopathogenic fungi and bacteria, monitoring and detection of (quarantine) insects, and disinfestation methods.

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Biological control and resilient systems

We study both harmful and useful fungi , viruses, bacteria and insects and analyse the effect they have on crop health. As a result, we have an understanding of resilient systems such as resilient soils or substrates, but also of biological control using fungi and bacteria, all of which are sustainable solutions. They play a role in the successful and sustainable integrated crop protection strategies that make agriculture sustainable.

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Soil, substrate and resilience

A disease suppressive soil with resilient plants is a tool for integrated pest and disease management. This is why our research is focusing on the stimulation of the resilience of cropping systems where the natural (beneficial) microorganisms as well as physical and chemical soil properties play a crucial role. The enormous diversity of microorganisms in soils, substrates and plants is - through mechanisms such as competition, antagonism and predation – contributing to the suppression of pests and diseases.

Our research focuses on the development of management strategies as well as on the understanding of the underlying mechanisms. The investigated microbial population also form a rich source of new compounds and genes (antibiotics, enzymes, etc.).

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Genetics

Resistance to pests and diseases is the basis for the sustainable and healthy production of agricultural and horticultural crops. The identification and deployment of the genes that drive this process is our ambition in the wheat, banana and potato programs.  Clearly, this is only possible by a solid understanding of the fungal diseases that threaten these crops. Septoria leaf blotch in wheat is a major problem in Europe and Northern Africa. Worldwide, banana is threatened by Black Sigatoka and Panama disease whereas the ubiquitous potato late blight threatens global potato production. Our research focuses on the genetic diversity of the fungi that cause these diseases in order to map their spatial distribution.

Collaboration

This fundamental research feeds into solutions that contribute to disease control and consequently to food security. Collaboration with other disciplines and the (inter)national industry is essential for the translation of this know-how into practical applications and products.

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Simulation Models and Decision Support Systems

Simulation models give (quantitative) insight and support decisions. Pests and diseases in agricultural crops strongly react to their biotic and abiotic environment. Weather, variety(e.g. host resistance) and cropping measures affect the incidence and severity  of pests and diseases as well as the effectiveness of the control measures required.

Simulation models

Simulation models give quantitative insight into the life cycle of pests and diseases and the dependence on the biotic and abiotic factors mentioned above. This enables optimisation of year-round control strategies by supporting strategic and operational  decisions with relevant (quantitative) insights and current  information on the crop, pathogen and environment. This, in turn, allows integrated pest management (IPM) strategies to reach a maximum control effect with a minimal input of, e.g., plant protection products. The recently developed highly effective 'low-input' spraying strategies for Potato Late Blight control on (more) resistant potato varieties are good examples of such an IPM 2.0 strategy.

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