News Release 

Scientists look to space to track plant pathogens coasting through atmosphere

Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. - To better understand how plant pathogens that travel the globe with dust particles might put crops at risk, a Cornell University-led team of scientists will use data from NASA's Earth Observing Satellites to identify areas of potential disease and track plumes of dust that traverse the globe.

The multidisciplinary team of scientists has been selected for a $750,000 NASA grant to combine their expertise in remote sensing, climate and earth system computer modeling, plant pathology and genomics to study the effects of soilborne plant pathogens which can travel in dust clouds from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. They will also use earth system modeling to predict how regions will change over time and how that may influence disease dispersal with dust.

If the origins and landing spots of specific pathogens can be better predicted, farmers can be advised on how to avoid practices that would increase its spread, such as those that kick up dust from farm fields, and perhaps grow less susceptible crops where such dust falls.

"We lose anywhere from 15% to 30% of the global harvest to plant diseases annually; here in 2020, people still die because they don't have access to food, because of losses due to plant disease," said principal investigator Katie Gold, assistant professor of plant pathology. "Remote sensing can do a lot help mitigate the impacts of plant disease on the global food supply."

"It's just a fascinating combination of cross-disciplinary work that's going to allow us to address things that no one has been able to address before," said co-investigator Natalie Mahowald, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences and an expert in atmospheric modeling.

NASA's Release of Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science Interdisciplinary Science grant is for three years, which will allow the team to lay the foundation for a global surveillance system to assess risk and track and potentially prevent the global spread of plant diseases.

Other co-investigators include Ryan Pavlick, an imaging spectroscopy technologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, and Sharifa Crandall, assistant professor of soilborne disease dynamics and management at Pennsylvania State University.

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