Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Crop Protection Genetics

The Land Institute’s Crop Protection Genetics program uses defense traits and disease resistance genes to protect crops during domestication.

Throughout history, diseases have led to major crop epidemics resulting in food shortage and famine. The Crop Protection Genetic Program partners closely with breeding and ecology programs to reduce disease through genetic improvements and changes to management practices.

Why Crop Protection Genetics?

  • Infections caused by certain fungi, bacteria, and viruses can limit crop yields by reducing nutrient uptake, preventing flowering, or even causing death. Besides lowering yields, some pathogens produce toxins that make the crop unsuitable for consumption. For example, the Fusarium fungus infects wheatgrass (Kernza®) heads and produces compounds toxic to humans and livestock. We utilize genetic diversity within our crops to limit certain pathogen strains from becoming dominant and causing severe damage.
  • We use observation of symptoms, DNA sequences, and enzyme-based approaches to identify pathogens. Pathogens that are specific to our novel crops will require intensive evaluation.
  • In conventional agricultural systems, controlling weeds, pests, and diseases is typically accomplished by using disruptive methods such tillage and chemical control. However, in natural grassland ecosystems, fire and grazing can have many beneficial effects in reducing the size of pathogen populations. We are testing strategies such as burning and timing of biomass harvest in developing a natural systems agriculture.

Angela Brekalo, a resident at The Land Institute, examines silphium plants for rust and leaf blotch. She’s comparing disease resistance of these plants with resistance data of their parents. She’s ranking that degree of resistance by tying one of five colored ribbons to the plants. The analysis work will continue through harvest.

Program History

In 2018, TLI started a program to identify potential pathogens, develop methods to measure the level of infection, and determine which diseases needed to be prioritized for control. The program now focuses on reducing those diseases and building networks of collaborators to accelerate this work.

Program Goals

  • Reduce disease in perennial polyculture systems through genetic resistance, genetic diversity within the crop species, and genetic diversity of multiple crops planted in polycultures.
    • Plants have many strategies to avoid and limit infection. Structures like thick cell walls, protective leaf cuticles, and seed coats serve as barriers to pathogens. Some plants produce defensive compounds that have antifungal or antibiotic properties that kill or deter microorganisms. Silphium, for example, has high resin content that may deter pests and pathogens from attacking its leaves. Plants have also evolved systems to detect invasion and activate chemical responses to prevent the spread of pathogens. Perennial wheat has genes that are activated when attacked, killing parts of its own leaves around the pathogen to prevent it from spreading. Many defense genes from intermediate wheatgrass (Kernza) have been used to improve annual wheat varieties against multiple diseases. After developing ways to measure important diseases, we will search for plants with innate defenses.  If a defense is heritable, breeders can select and cross the resistant individuals that employ different defense strategies to develop disease resistant populations or varieties
    • We utilize diversity on multiple levels. Genetic diversity within our crop species can reduce the ability of certain pathogen strains from becoming dominant and causing severe damage. Diversity is also incorporated at the community level and will be included through breeding by growing companion plants in polycultures, which can physically limit the spread of pathogen spores or can alter the microclimate around the plants restricting the growth of the pathogen. To include diversity from other kingdoms, we identify potentially pathogenic and beneficial microbes through genetic approaches. After experimentation, we may be able to employ beneficial microbes to deter or compete with pathogens as a biocontrol strategy.
  • Study the long term role of disease in perennial grain crops and its impact in polyculture mixtures of perennial grains. We are very interested in studying the long term role of disease in perennial systems and the impact of polyculture.  Some pathogens persist and may accumulate over time, while other pathogens will diminish due to seasonal variation or competition. We expect some of those pathogens like viruses and belowground microbes may colonize the plants and become very difficult to eliminate. Avoiding the initial infection through management, using host defense, or employing biocontrol may be needed to reduce the pathogen population sizes. Our goal is not to completely eliminate all disease. Allowing small levels of infection is not only practical, but can prevent pathogens from evolving to circumvent plant disease resistance genes, which has led to historic epidemics in other crops.

Research Collaborators


Agri-Food Canada Ottawa, Ontario Canada
National Scientific and Technical Research Council Buenos Aires, Argentina


Kansas State University Manhattan, KS
North Dakota State University Fargo, ND
University of Kansas Lawrence, KS
Washington State Univerisity, Pullman, WA
University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN

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Project Team

Kathryn Turner
Lead Scientist, Crop Protection Genetics

Yvonne Thompson
Research Technician, Crop Protection Genetics

Angela Brekalo
Research Resident, Crop Protection Genetics

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