Insects destroy up to one quarter of global crops each year, resulting in estimated losses of up to $470 billion. Even in greenhouse conditions, pests can still cause damage by making their way inside through vents.
It’s a problem the University of Toronto’s Eliana Gonzales-Vigil aims to tackle by better understanding the complex relationship between plants and bugs.
The biological sciences researcher at U of T Scarborough is specifically looking at how to protect crops from the cabbage looper, a common pest of tomatoes and other vegetables such as peppers, cucumbers and – of course – cabbage.
“My long-term goal is to understand how plants defend themselves from insect herbivores,” Gonzales-Vigil said.
“But to achieve this, we need to understand all the players involved.”
Gonzales-Vigil is one of 52 winners of this year’s Connaught New Researcher Award, designed to help recipients establish a strong research program and increase their competitiveness for external funding. The award is part of U of T’s commitment to fostering excellence in research and innovation by supporting faculty members who are launching their academic careers.
Up to $1 million will be distributed among this year’s winners.
“I would like to congratulate all the winners of the Connaught New Researcher Award,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives.
“These researchers are doing exciting, innovative work across many different disciplines. It’s the University of Toronto’s hope that this funding will help set the stage for world-leading scholarship and important new discoveries.”
Gonzales-Vigil is embarking on a study to explore how impacting the gut microbiome of the cabbage looper may help tomato plants be more resistant against the insect’s attack.
“We want to test the idea of whether the microbiome of the cabbage looper is being affected by the plant’s chemistry. If yes, then can we manipulate the plant’s chemistry by adding something like a probiotic that would impede insect growth?”
She added the Connaught award will help kick-start a new line of research after having most recently focused on how poplar trees defend themselves through a waxy compound secretion.
“Having the Connaught has given me the freedom to start something that’s new,” she said, adding that she hopes her research will eventually lead to insect control methods that can be used around the world.