Researchers at Iowa State University say they’re making significant progress in battling one of the planet’s most notorious and destructive plant-gobbling worms. I-S-U plant pathologist Thomas Baum says the root-knot nematode attacks nearly every food and fiber plant grown, including many common vegetables, fruit trees and ornamentals.

Baum says “It is a pathogen on a huge number of crop species. They infect the roots of plants. They penetrate throughout the roots and then they start feeding in the roots and that causes problems for the roots and the plant and the crop and the yield of that crop species.” Baum is a professor and chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at I-S-U. He says the microscopic worm uses a few key tools to thrive in plant roots.

He says they were able to deprive the nematode of one of those tools used in eating roots, knocking out a gene that creates a protein so the nematode could no longer infect plants, making the plant resistant to the nematode. Baum says four major species of nematodes are responsible for about 95-percent of agricultural infestations around the world. While the research is showing success, Baum says the next step is making the findings practically available to the growers.

Baum says “The most important aspect would by the soybean cyst nematode. In similar projects, similar avenues are currently being followed, and we’re exploring whether we can use the same technology to make progress with the soybean cyst nematode. We’ll have to wait a year or two to know for sure whether it works, but if it does, of course, there will be efforts underway to make this available to soybean farmers.”

Researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia are also taking part in the ten-year research project. Results of the research were published this week in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”