The focus of the Nicholson lab’s research is on investigating the genetic basis of resistance to a number of pathogens of wheat and barley.
The main diseases are Fusarium head blight and wheat blast which affect the heads of cereals and eyespot that attacks the stem base. While all three diseases reduce yield, Fusarium head blight is of particular concern because the fungi produce toxins that can contaminate grain and pose a health risk to human and animal consumers.
These diseases each require a different approach. While wheat blast and Fusarium head blight cause similar symptoms they differ markedly with respect to resistance. The former can be tackled by identifying conventional resistance genes while the latter is much more difficult to counter as such genes do not appear to play any role in resistance to this disease.
The lab’s studies reveal that, in order to reduce disease, it is essential to identify and eliminate so-called susceptibility factors present in the host that actually aid the fungus as it infects. There are very few sources of resistance to eyespot and the most potent resistance derives from a relative of wheat. They are attempting to identify the gene(s) responsible as well as identify new sources of resistance.
In addition to working on wheat itself, the Nicholson lab also use the model species (Brachypodium distachyon) and wheat relatives to aid our research.
All their research is intended to produce information and tools to assist plant breeders to develop resistant varieties in order to prevent yield losses and reduce contamination of grain with toxins.