University of Sussex Media Release.
. Traffic-Choked Crops Find Relief in Sussex Student

9 February 1999
For immediate release

Traffic pollution is causing unprecedented levels of damage to the world’s crops. In a bid to tackle this damage, Sussex student Karen Welfare is working on a way to protect plants against the harmful ozone caused by vehicle pollution. Karen, who is studying for a DPhil in the Plant Stress Unit, is well on the way to isolating an anti-ozone gene.

Ozone destroys crops by producing chemicals which attack plants’ membranes. The dangerous gas is produced when nitrogen oxides produced by cars reacts with hydrocarbons in sunlight. Because this reaction takes time to occur, ozone is found in higher levels in agricultural areas, away from the site of the pollution.

Karen's research is focused on the massive levels of pollution in urban areas of the Indian sub-continent. Vehicle pollution is particularly harmful in India because of the large population, the growing number of cars, and the fact that, as Karen points out, "these cars are often poorly looked after - they don't have catalytic converters or any control over output." The worst aspect of this pollution is that the traffic which chokes up Indian cities can damage crops in agricultural areas several hundreds of kilometres away. The reaction which produces ozone takes place in a drifting cloud of polluting materials which becomes at its most toxic as it moves towards rural areas.

Karen's research is concentrated on the chick pea plant, which is a staple of the Indian diet. Damage done to chick pea crops hits the poorest people hardest, as it is grown on a subsistence basis for food rather than for export. Yields can be badly damaged by ozone pollution, but Karen's research has isolated species which are ozone resistant. By isolating these resistant types, Karen has already pinpointed a way to alleviate the damage done to chick pea yields in India. Closer examination of these strains shows the way to unpicking the plant's defence mechanism. Plants use antioxidants to protect themselves from ozone and other pollutants, and Karen is working towards isolating the specific antioxidant responsible for protecting the plant. This antioxidant could then be incorporated into plants which are non-ozone-resistant.

This should benefit crops in Britain too, where ozone pollution causes the same sort of damage as it does in India. Once isolated, the resistant antioxidant could, according to Karen, "prevent the same sort of damage to other crops all over the world." Short of a drastic cut in worldwide vehicle usage, Karen's work could be our best hope for protecting the world's plants against ozone.

For further information please contact Sally Hall, Information Office, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 678335, email s.l.hall@sussex.ac.uk or Karen Welfare, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 606755 ext 2747, email k.l.welfare@sussex.ac.uk. Professor Tim Flowers, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678424, email t.j.flowers@sussex.ac.uk

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