Brian Kerry MBE, Professor of Nematology, Rothamsted Research

If Brian Kerry can crack this one, he will merit more than the MBE he won for services to science in the Queen's New Year's Honours List.

Much depends on the professor of nematology and his ilk in the coming years as we struggle to feed the mouths of spiralling populations. Right now he is working on nematode control in vegetable crops, and good outcomes are badly needed.

Nematodes - the microscopic worms that feed on plant roots - cause around £5bn worth of crop losses worldwide and are the most prolific enemies of potato production in the UK. They are also some of the toughest ones to control throughout the world.

But nematodes have a formidable foe. Professor Kerry has spent 35 years at the world's oldest, and perhaps most respected, agricultural research station. Rothamsted Research is 160 years old and a centre of excellence in genetics and biochemistry.

And his MBE gives credence to both the rising profile of his science and the chronic need for breakthroughs. Two-thirds of our potato fields are infested with potato cyst nematodes at a time when competition for land, fuel and food has never been fiercer.

"I'm not sure we're all doomed, but we need enough advances to be made to provide the food needed by an ever-increasing world population," he says. "Food security should be a major concern to everybody in growing, research and society."

This is to say nothing of climate change and other global phenomena affecting crops, which call for an international perspective. His team in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, is also working on nematodes in the tropics and aims to apply the technology in Africa.

Fighting nematodes needs an open mind from Professor Kerry, science director of the institute's centre for soils and ecosystem function. Key areas of interest are fungi, bacteria and other forms of biological control that are less toxic than other approaches.

But he refuses to evangelise on the pros and cons of controversial and, to some people, murkier areas of science such as genetic modification. There will be no single solution to the problem of nematodes - of that he is sure.

"It will need a range of solutions packaged together. It may need a GM approach, and that's highly controversial. You can't say you are for or against: it depends what gene is used for what purpose, and what transformation takes place and its value."

The Queen may or may not have debated the merits of GM science at January's investiture, but she could be quietly confident on her choice of medallist. Progress to date by Kerry and his team of researchers has been impressive.

It has hit on fungi that attack cereal cyst nematodes in monocultures of susceptible crops, and is inching tantalisingly closer to nematode-suppressive soils. Such a decline in these nematodes has never been seen before with other nematodes, he says.

Kerry studied agricultural sciences and nematology to PhD level before working a short stint at ADAS. Then came Rothamsted in 1973, where he began studying the biological control of nematodes, then headed the entomology and nematology department before becoming associate director. His contributions to nematology have been recognised by numerous institutions.

Over its 160 years, Rothamsted has achieved a gilded reputation for the science of sustainable land management and its environmental impacts. As a cutting edge of technology, it could not be sharper.

"Rothamsted has a wide range of expertise and facilities and offers good scope for internationally competitive research, which is what every scientist wants. The need in many countries to build capacity in nematology is huge."

And that's what he is trying to do across nations. Parts of eastern Africa, such as Tanzania, estimate yield losses of up to 50 per cent, and with the help of charitable foundations Professor Kerry's team provides lab kit and websites for access to international journals.

"This is a way of building up expertise, because very few organisations can afford full-time nematologists. Problems are complex and you need people working as teams.

"This brings together plant-health technical experts in both flower and vegetable industries as well as people in academia to increase awareness of nematodes. I was surprised and delighted to get the MBE, but it's the group effort that deserves recognition."

CV


1969-1973: BSc in agricultural sciences at University of Nottingham; PhD
on the population dynamics of Heterodera avenae at the University of
Reading
1973-1987: Joins nematology department at Rothamsted
1987: Head of Rothamsted entomology and nematology department
1993: Becomes fellow of the Society of Nematologists
1998: Associate director, Rothamsted
2002 to date: Heads up nematode interactions unit and later becomes
science director of the centre for soils and ecosystem function at
Rothamsted
2008: Awarded MBE.


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