Fellows in the News

The sun is strong, the sky Hollywood-set blue, but the wind is brutal. This is confounding the work of Wade Elmer, chief scientist for the Department of Plant Pathology and Ecology at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. At the CAES farm in Hamden, he and a small contingent of grad students, lab assistants, and other researchers are busy transplanting eggplant seedlings and chasing empty seed containers across the blustery, one-tenth of an acre that Elmer likes to call the “death bed.”

The landscape is unquestionably picturesque, but the field is actually riddled with soil-borne diseases, which is why Elmer, who studies these agricultural blights, has been growing sample crops here for three decades. “I’m always worried we’re not gonna get infection,” he said. “But we always get infection.”

The eggplant, to be joined later by watermelon, are components of a three-year research project by Elmer and Jason White, a toxicologist who is the Ag Station’s vice director and runs its analytical chemistry department, to test whether nanotechnology — the use of substances in extremely small form — can help plants fight disease in a way that’s never been done before. White and Elmer believe they’ve figured out how to use nutrients in nano-form to stimulate the plants’ own immune systems. No chemicals, no genetic modification — nothing that seems to be bad for the plant or its environment.

If results from the first year of the study along with three years of preliminary experiments are any indication, the researchers may be onto something. And it may represent the potential to transform agriculture broadly — and to do it cost-effectively, possibly even saving money.

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Most nanotechnology researchers contacted were unfamiliar with White and Elmer’s approach of using nanotechnology to deliver nutrients to stimulate a plant’s own immune system.

“That’s really interesting,” said Patricia Holden, a professor and nanotech researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. She said she’d like to know whether the particles found in the root are still intact, if they’re entering the soil, and what sorts of metabolites are being produced in the plant. For edible varieties, the issue is safety. The results might show more, bigger, and disease-free fruit, but until it’s clear what’s actually going on inside, it’s hard to know whether the plant is safe for human consumption.

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