Researchers at Harper Adams University College are investigating whether temperature and climate change affect the growth of potato cyst nematodes (PCN).
PCN is a common potato pest found in two-thirds of the UK's crop fields. The microscopic worms attack the root systems of potato plants and prevent them from sufficiently absorbing water and nutrients, leading to a reduction in yield.
Researchers at Harper Adams University College in Shropshire are working with Dr Vivian Blok and PhD student Agata Kaczmarek at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland to monitor the crop throughout the season to see how PCN develops in relation to temperature.
Harper Adams nematode specialist Dr Pat Haydock said: "We have a typical infestation of PCN at a local potato grower's field. We are monitoring the crop development on a monthly basis and looking at the nematodes in the roots and soil.
"The site will then be compared with a much colder site in Luffness, Scotland, to see whether there is any correlation between temperature and the growth and development of nematodes."
Researchers are also looking at the potential for a second generation of nematodes. "This is something that we are concerned about as soil temperatures gradually increase in the UK," said Haydock. "The University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit has predicted rises in mean annual temperatures of 2-3 degsC by 2050 in England."
At the end of the potatoes' growth period the mature female nematodes drop into the soil. Within each of these lie several hundred dehydrated nematodes that can survive for 15-20 years and hatch when specific natural chemicals are leeched from the roots of potato plants.
Unlike fungal or insect pests, PCN cannot be eradicated easily using fungicides or insecticides, meaning that research into integrated control methods is crucial for growers.
Research programme Nematode control under investigation
Harper Adams University College's work on climate change is part of its programme looking at the basic biology of potato cyst nematodes (PCN) and how that understanding can be used to develop control methods.
"Another project with PhD student Patrick Norshie is studying the integrated control of nematodes using chemical methods, resistant varieties and long crop rotations," explained specialist Dr Pat Haydock.
"We are also about to explore the effects of bio-fumigation, using plants that produce natural substances that can control PCN. All our field experimentation is the culmination of work not just at Harper Adams but also at other institutions. It is important that research initially undertaken in glasshouses and small plots can be transferred to commercial field situations."