Three Groups in New Delhi are working to understand and improve adaptation of crop plants towards biotic and abiotic stresses for sustainable production of food grains. The Plant Insect Interaction Group (Nair) studies the interaction of the rice plant with its major insect pests viz the Asian rice gall midge and the Brown Planthopper, which are responsible for considerable yield loss in Asia and Africa. The Plant RNAi Biology Group (Sanan-Mishra) is interested in identifying the miRNA regulatory nodes that influence plant yields in response to challenges imposed by increasing soil salinity, high temperature and virus infection. The Plant Stress Biology Group (Singla-Pareek) is investigating solutions to increase plant yield under drought and salinity stress. The Biopesticides Group (Ndolo) in Cape Town works towards the discovery, development, formulation, commercialisation and use of biopesticides. This is achieved largely through a programmatic approach, which involves strategic engagement with relevant stakeholders to address the challenges confronting research and development of biopesticide products; and hence promote their application in agricultural production.
The Group investigating plant response to biotic and abiotic stresses continued their outstanding activities during 2020. The Insect Plant Interaction Group has identified several Brown planthopper (BPH) salivary gland proteins that directly interact with BPH resistance genes of rice. In addition, the Group has also looked at the dynamics of the insect microbiome and the role(s) that it might play in plant-insect interactions (Gupta and Nair, 2020, Front. Microbiol, 11:1357. The Plant RNAi Biology Group showed that adaptability of Pokkali rice variety to excess salt is due the genetic regulation of different cellular components by a panel of miRNAs (Goswami et al., 2020, Biomolecules, 10, 498). They also showed that overexpression of RNA silencing suppressor encoded by insect Flock House virus allowed the plants to tolerate high concentrations of salt (Sinha et al., 2020, Phytoparasitica, 1). This indicated the involvement of key miRNA regulatory nodes by which plants deal with diverse environmental stresses. The Plant Stress Biology Group engineered solutions for abiotic stress tolerance using various target genes (J. Exp. Bot., 71:490-506, 2020; New Phytol 714-721, 2020). The Biopesticides Group reviewed the experiences and perspectives on Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) management in Sub-Saharan Africa, outlining key considerations necessary to develop an integrated approach for management of this invasive pest in the region (Njuguna et al., in press, J. Integr. Pest Manag)