Soil Microbes to Help African Farmers Fight Striga

Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, many farmers rely on this grain for food and feed. But Striga, a parasitic weed, can have a devastating impact on crop yield. With a grant of $8 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an international team including UC Davis researchers will now explore the potential of soil microbes to offer crop protection. The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) is coordinating the five-year project.

Striga on sorghum field

A sorghum field infested with Striga (purple flowers). The parasitic plant destroys up to half of Africa’s sorghum crop. (Taye Tessema, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research)

Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Soil Microbiome

By Lisa Howard

Soil Actually Has a Microbiome

Gut bacteria have been getting a lot of attention lately (yogurt, anyone?) but it turns out the soil in your own back yard is teeming with microbial life. According to Kate Scow, a professor of soil science and microbial ecology at UC Davis, a quarter teaspoon of soil can easily contain a billion bacterial cells. And she estimates there can be 10,000 to 50,000 different taxa of microbes in a single teaspoon. Soil is one of the most complex and diverse ecosystems on the planet, and it is one that is essential for human life through all the functions it provides: the breakdown of organic materials, food production, water purification, greenhouse gas reduction, and pollution cleanup, just to name a few.

Honey Bee Genetics Sheds Light on Bee Origins

Where do honey bees come from? A new study from researchers at the University of California, Davis and UC Berkeley clears some of the fog around honey bee origins. The work could be useful in breeding bees resistant to disease or pesticides.

A foraging honeybee. Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey.

A foraging honeybee. Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey.

UC Davis postdoctoral researcher Julie Cridland is working with Santiago Ramirez, assistant professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, and Neil Tsutsui, professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley, to understand the population structure of honey bees (Apis mellifera) in California. Pollination by honey bees is essential to major California crops, such as almonds. Across the U.S., the value of “pollination services” from bees has been estimated as high as $14 billion.

10-cent DryCard to Help Farmers Keep Harvest Safe From Mold

Molds that contaminate dry foods, especially ground nuts and maize cause significant postharvest losses in the developing world.  Mold contamination results in poor flavor, loss of dry matter, and most importantly, is a health hazard.  Aflatoxin, produced by several fungi, contaminates up to one quarter of the world’s food crops and is a particular problem in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. It causes acute poisoning, liver cancer and is associated with stunting and suppression of the immune system.  It is estimated to cause about 100,000 cases of liver cancer per year and a world-wide loss of 1-2 million daily adjusted life years per year.

Wheat Gene Database is Tool for Improved Yield and Nutrition

By Ann Filmer

Plant scientists and wheat breeders now have a new tool to develop more nutritious and productive wheat varieties: A public online database of 10 million mutations in wheat genes. Scientists at UC Davis and three institutions in the UK created the database, which will allow scientists worldwide to study the function of every gene of wheat. The research will be reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

UC Davis Plant Sciences Professor, Jorge Dubcovsky is working to improve the yield and nutritional value of wheat, one of the world's most important crops.

UC Davis Plant Sciences Professor, Jorge Dubcovsky is working to improve the yield and nutritional value of wheat, one of the world’s most important crops.

Livestock and Climate Change: Facts and Fiction

Dairy cows eat hay

Holstein cows eat lunch at the Dairy Cattle Facility at UC Davis. Credit: Gregory Urquiaga, UC Davis

By Frank Mitloehner

As the November 2015 Global Climate Change Conference COP21 concluded in Paris, 196 countries reached agreement on the reduction of fossil fuel use and emissions in the production and consumption of energy, even to the extent of potentially phasing out fossil fuels out entirely.

Both globally and in the U.S., energy production and use, as well as the transportation sectors, are the largest anthropogenic contributors of greenhouse gasses (GHG), which are believed to drive climate change. While there is scientific consensus regarding the relative importance of fossil fuel use, anti animal-agriculture advocates portray the idea that livestock is to blame for a lion’s share of the contributions to total GHG emissions.

Not so sweet: Why Pollinators Forage on Toxic or Bitter Nectar

Audio: Listen to this story on our podcast, Three Minute Egghead. 

By Kathy Keatley Garvey

Nectar doesn’t always taste so sweet, but honeybees and other pollinators still feed on it. Now UC Davis community ecologist Rachel Vannette has discovered why pollinators continue to forage on “toxic” or bitter-tasting nectar, despite what should be a deterrent.

In newly published research in the journal Ecology, Vannette notes that floral nectar is produced by many plants to reward pollinators, but this sugary secretion often contains chemical compounds that are bitter tasting or toxic, which should deter pollinators. Plants including citrus, tobacco (Nicotiana), milkweed (Asclepias), turtlehead (Chelone), Catalpa, and others produce nectar containing bioactive or toxic compounds.

UC Davis joins UC Water effort to improve state’s water security

By Kat Kerlin

It’s hard to manage what you don’t measure.

UC Davis is playing a major role in solving California’s biggest water woes by joining forces across the UC system. The UC Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative aims to account for all of California’s water, better understand how and where it flows, and help demonstrate how water can be managed differently to allow for greater water security.

Innovation event jumpstarts dialogue on food, agriculture and health

By Kyeema Zerbe and Jennifer Hebets

The first ever event by the Innovation Institute for Food and Health (IIFH) struck surprising consensus in the food, agriculture and health agenda. The Challenge Definition Workshop held Oct. 29 set the stage for dialogue around such issues as crop selection, soil health, nutrition education, consumer decision-making, and technology feasibility – all under the overarching themes of health, sustainability, knowledge and governance. Next week, focus groups will deliberate the research questions behind such challenges, in preparation for the tour, hackathon and conference scheduled at the Solution Summit on December 2 and 3 in the UC Davis Conference Center.

Innovation Institute kicks-off “uncommon collaboration” for food and health with workshop

By Kyeema Zerbe

The Innovation Institute for Food and Health (IIFH) at UC Davis is kicking off a uniquely open collaboration on solving critical challenges in food, agriculture and health with an open workshop Oct. 29 inviting participants from all disciplines to provide input on the institute’s strategic focus.

Food and nutrition insecurity remain serious issues for more than 50 developing countries, according to the 2015 Global Hunger Index. And even as many as 10 percent of populations in developed countries go hungry, including in the fertile lands of California’s Central Valley. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that almost 800 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished. With the global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, society faces an uncertain future that demands a coordinated response from all sectors to improve access to adequate nutrition.