Researcher strives to create sustainable food resources

karolina mukhtar200x163All species of plants, wild and cultivated alike, are subject to disease — a fact that can be devastating to an economy, wildlife and humans.

Plant diseases lead to reduced crop yields, decreased nutritional value and sometimes contaminated food and feed with toxic compounds. The result is millions of dollars in annual economic losses in the United States and tens of billions in losses worldwide.

But genetically modifying crop plants to be disease-resistant by adding one extra gene could yield plants that are better equipped to fight stressors and diseases, especially bacterial ones.

Karolina Mukhtar, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, says it could be possible.

“And it could save millions of dollars that are lost every year in the United States because of pests and pathogens,” she says. “Even more in Third World countries. Today’s global population of nearly 7 billion is expected to jump to 10 billion by 2050, and 1 billion people worldwide already are suffering from malnutrition.

“Engineering plants to create a better product under stress conditions is the way to feed the world and ease the burden on poor, underdeveloped nations.”

Mukhtar, who came to the biology department in fall 2010, is UAB’s only plant researcher studying the possibilities of providing adequate, sustainable food resources and disease-resistant crops using genetic engineering.

By knowing these few key regulatory genes needed to create broad-spectrum resistance, she says, the potential is there to genetically modify a crop plant by putting one extra gene in to it.

“That could give it a great many options,” Mukhtar says. “With different pathogens, it will be able to fight off stressors better in the field. It will help with diseases, mostly bacterial diseases.”

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Last modified on March 11, 2014