Using epigenetic information to understand plant-nematode interactions 

Nationwide, soybean farmers are facing a serious adversary: a microscopic, parasitic worm that causes over a billion dollars in yield losses every year. As soybeans represent one of the largest agricultural commodities in the U.S., this parasite not only endangers soybean farms but poses a threat to agricultural trade and exports.

Enter the University of Tennessee’s Dr. Tarek Hewezi. A professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the UT Institute of Agriculture, Tarek and his team study parasitic nematodes and their impacts on plant growth and development. Some of their most notable research looks at soybean cyst nematodes.

Soybean cyst nematodes (SCNs) are small plant-parasitic roundworms that attack the roots of soybean plants and can survive in the soil for as long as 30 years. Plants infected with high numbers of SCNs have poorly developed root systems that cannot utilize nutrients and water efficiently, resulting in yield reductions of up to 50% in certain varieties. The most effective SCN management practices currently include using resistant varieties and rotating to non-host crops.  However, there are a limited number of SCN-resistant genes currently available, and when the same resistance genes have been used over and over again, the nematodes are able to adapt to overcome the resistance. In fact, many of the previously SCN-resistant varieties grown in the Midwest have already become susceptible once again.

Dr. Tarek Hewezi has worked on developing SCN-resistant soybean lines for many years in collaboration with Dr. Vince Pantalone, a professor in the same Department of Plant Sciences. He and his team developed a novel epigenetic approach that identifies suppressed genes involved in SCN resistance, and then uses these genes to convert previously susceptible varieties into resistant varieties. They used this approach to sequence the entire genome of a soybean and identify several novel major SCN resistance genes — a discovery that has enormous implications for both soybean production and the methodology behind the research. Tarek explained that these new SCN-resistant genes can be used in different combinations to develop new resistant varieties for an extended period of time.

While discussing the research and development of the new genes, Tarek also highlighted the value of generous funding support from Tennessee Soybean Promotion Board (TSPB).  TSPB provided the support and funding for several years to examine my high-risk idea and conduct my research, which resulted in these breakthrough discoveries. Also, Tarek stressed the importance of his partnership with UTRF. “From the beginning, UTRF assisted us with IP protection for the genes we discovered using our new methodology,” remarked Tarek. “UTRF has provided additional funding support . to help collecting key data requested by companies, they awarded me with Maturation Grants twice: once in 2015 and again last year.”

“Tarek is always willing to take the extra step to achieve excellence and to use industry feedback to create commercially relevant technologies,” said UTRF Licensing Assistant Kusum Rathore. “UTRF is proud to partner with Tarek, whose work can impact soybean production on a global scale.”

Much like the plants he studies, one of Tarek’s favorite aspects of his work is watching his students grow and mature. He loves to help students increase their knowledge about the field by “assisting them, giving them what they need, and helping them become independent scientists,” just like when a seedling grows to produce fruit.

Other people may prefer watching sports or spending time outdoors, but for Tarek, his work is also his hobby, and he is happiest when he is “making discoveries, working, and getting papers submitted and published.”

“Maybe it is crazy,” he added with a laugh. “But this is what I enjoy.”