Tiny worms, big damage: NWO grant for nematode research

Published on
March 16, 2023

Jose Lozano Torres (Wageningen University & Research) and Rik Korswagen (Hubrecht Institute and Utrecht University) received a NWO Open Technology Programme grant for their research project on plant-parasitic nematodes. Nematodes are microscopically small organisms that live in the soil. Plant-parasitic nematodes form an increasing threat to global food security.

The NWO Open Technology Programme focuses on research that should lead to applicable knowledge and gives companies the opportunity to join this type of scientific research in an easy way. Six projects received a total of 4.7 million euros. Involved companies and organisations are investing an additional 1.1. million euros.

Threat to food security

Nematodes are like tiny worms that can infect plants and cause damage. When nematodes infect a plant, they can cause the plant to create special cells that are designed to feed the nematode, stealing nutrients away from the plant. These special cells can range from individual to groups of merged cells.

Lozano Torres and Korswagen want to better understand how these cells have evolved and developed. To study these cells, they will use a technology that allows them to see which genes are turned on and off in specific parts of tomato roots. Finally, they will try to block certain parts of the cell development process to limit the damage the nematodes can cause to the plant. Overall, their research is aimed at gaining a better understanding of how nematodes interact with plants and finding ways to limit the damage they can cause.

Crucial advantages for society

“If we can find a way to make plants resistant to these plant-parasitic nematodes, we can create a broad resistance that is non-specific and durable.” Korswagen says. This, in combination with using the tomato as a model plant in the project, facilitates the transfer of the projects’ results to other economically important plant species (e.g. potato, pepper and eggplant).

Lozano Torres: “This is interesting for the (Dutch) breeding companies that play a central role in producing seeds and improving varieties for these food crops worldwide.” Also, each seed company involved in this project is within the world's top 8 of vegetable plant breeding, representing more than half of global sales of high-quality vegetable seeds. “Our industrial partners will help translate our research into novel nematode-resistant varieties for the consumer market. That way, we can keep enjoying healthy food.”