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Researchers tackle soybean cyst nematodes with neuroscience

Two researchers are working to fight soybean cyst nematodes, a devastating crop pest, with a subfield of neuroscience called connectomics.

soybean cyst nematode usda ars.jpg
The soybean cyst nematode is a major pathogen of soybeans. A juvenile nematode is pictured here with an egg. (USDA-ARS photo)

It's fair to say that few Americans have heard of connectomics. It's also fair to say that virtually every U.S. soybean farmer is familiar with soybean cyst nematodes, or SCN, possibly the most destructive crop pest in the country. Now, research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is using connectomics to battle SCN.

Nematodes, often referred to as roundworms, are multicellular insects with smooth, unsegmented bodies In heavily infested fields, SCN can cause crop damage of more than 30 % and, in some extreme cases, cause complete crop loss.

Illinois in the nation's top producer of soybeans .

According to information from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign:

Connectomics is a subfield of neuroscience that studies comprehensive maps of connections within an organism’s nervous system.

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Lav Varshney, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university, and Schroeder, associate professor of crop sciences and a nematologist at the university, are working "to develop updated micrographs using thin sections of SCNs to get images of every synapse and reconstruct the worm’s esophagus. At that point, Varshney can begin to develop models of the neural network."

"The goal of Varshney’s modeling will be to develop a systems-theoretic model of the nervous system and then use network control theory to mathematically determine which synapses or which neurons are the most important for feeding behavior. He will determine what muscles are involved in the feeding process, what circuits are important to feeding behaviors, and how these processes are controlled."

A written statement from the university, available at https://csl.illinois.edu/news/32847, contains much more information on the research.

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