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Ask the Expert: Rick Nelson, Ph.D.

Rick Nelson, Ph.D., became one of the first plant scientists at the Noble Research Institute when he joined in 1988. He will be retiring later this year, in December, after contributing more than three decades of service to plant science studying plant biology and virology.

Posted Oct. 18, 2017

Q: Why do we need agricultural research?

A: In agricultural research, we often talk about improving crop yields. This is certainly important. Without research, which includes plant observation, selection and mating, we would be eating fruit or vegetables from unimproved, essentially wild, species. The yields from these plants would be so dramatically reduced compared to what we enjoy today that we would never be able to sustain the existing world population.

Currently, other topics affecting agriculture have risen in importance to society. For example, we are concerned about overusing the limited amount of minable plant nutrients (like phosphorus) available on Earth and are renewing efforts to benefit the environment by controlling excess nitrogen fertilizer runoff into watersheds. These nutrients are essential for plant growth, so we have to figure out ways to more efficiently source and use them. We cannot address these issues by maintaining the status quo or going back to older varieties. Often, high-level breakthroughs come from research.

To aid in this work, my laboratory has cloned and modified a plant virus so it can be used to identify genes that may be used to improve plants' abilities to more efficiently use nutrients. This modified plant virus, a product of basic research, is also used throughout the world to identify genes or groups of genes that can enhance sugar release from plants for use as specialty product or fuel sources or to improve a plant's ability to resist disease. As is always the case, research can be adapted to address any need, and it is very often through research that meaningful advances, such as improving a plant's nutrient use, are made in agriculture.

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