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News Release 17-063

New NSF, USDA awards focus on relationships that benefit, harm plants

Research examines interactions of plants with microbes and invertebrates

Rice field with an inset image of the blast fungus Magnaporthe oryzae.

Rice crops can be decimated by the blast fungus Magnaporthe oryzae (inset).

July 19, 2017

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) have issued 27 research project awards, totaling more than $18 million, to support research into the relationships between plants, microbes and other organisms in their environment. These awards were made through the Plant Biotic Interactions (PBI) program jointly administered by the NSF Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) and NIFA.

"The PBI program is an example of good use of government resources and interagency collaboration, taking advantage of the expertise and support for basic science provided by NSF and the applied agricultural research supported by NIFA that translates into improving crop outcomes," says James Olds, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences. "It allows creative investigators to combine basic science questions with applied uses of the results in one proposal."

Organisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and invertebrates have relationships with plants that can range from mutually beneficial symbiosis, to pathogenesis, to parasitism that harms host plants. The PBI program focuses on uncovering the processes that allow for, promote or control these relationships. The first-ever PBI awards went to projects examining the dynamics of how these complex associations are initiated, transmitted and maintained.

For agriculture, a beneficial relationship between plants and other organisms can save farmers resources and money, but a harmful relationship can result in expensive crop loss or inefficiencies. Only by studying the interactions in model plants and economically important plants will it be possible to effectively utilize the advantages these relationships offer or eliminate their detrimental effects.

Research topics in the new awards include projects to:

  • Determine how root, microbial communities promote the health of beachgrass crucial for preserving sand dunes along coastlines.
  • Shed light on how a pathogen can cause tomatoes, cotton, watermelon, banana and other valuable crops to wither on their stems.
  • Define how plants recognize and halt pathogens.
  • Assess how plants distinguish their own pollen from the pollen of other plants during fertilization.

The funded projects will outline the molecular, genomic, metabolic and cellular dynamics of biotic interactions involving plants, with the goal of deepening the research community's fundamental knowledge while advancing information needed to improve agricultural outcomes. The newly awarded projects are:


Media Contacts
Rob Margetta, NSF, (703) 292-2663, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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