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USU Ecology Center speaker explores plant genetic diversity and pathogens

A woman smiles on a sunny day in front of a blurry building
University of Utah

This month’s USU Ecology Center seminars are focused on the complex world of plant pathogens, in both wild and agricultural systems.

Dr. Talia Karasov, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Utah, is interested in plant pathogens like fungus, insects and bacteria. These pathogens wreak havoc on plant populations.

“We know that pests in agriculture are a serious threat, so an estimated 20 to 30% of agricultural yield is lost each year to pests. The big picture of what I'm interested in is how we can develop agricultural systems, such that they're resilient to big disease outbreaks,” Karasov said.

In an effort to reduce the amount of crops lost to pathogens each year, scientists spend significant time breeding new pathogen-resistant crop varieties. However, one of the difficulties of preventing pathogens from infecting plants is that pathogens evolve far faster than we can create pathogen-resistant plants.

“You can actually evolve new antibiotic resistances, for a microbe in the lab in just a few days, sometimes or a few months,” Karasov explained. “So pathogens can evolve very quickly. And so what's happened again, and again, is when we as a bigger scientific community spend long periods of time developing resistant varieties, we put them out in the field, and the pathogen will evolve within the span of a few years to overcome that resistance.”

Interestingly, Karasov said this doesn’t happen as often in wild settings, likely because wild plant communities are much more genetically diverse than crops.

“In wild systems, there's a lot of genetic diversity within a host species. So you look at the genes underlying resistance, and we find those are some of the most diverse genetically diverse genes in the genome…and so the result of this is that while a pathogen may be able to infect some of the population, it usually can't infect all of the population,” Karasov said.

More information about how to watch Dr. Karasov’s recorded talks at

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.