• Organism

Sugar/ Sea Beet

The UK’s sugar source and a recently domesticated plant with unique insights into pathogen evolution

Overview.

Scientific name: Beta vulgaris

Habitat: Cliffs, beaches, salt marshes, coastal grasslands

Beta vulgaris is a species of plant which includes the cultivated sugar beet (subsp. vulgaris) and the wild sea beet (subsp. maritima). The wild plant grows on cliffs, stony and sandy beaches, salt marshes and coastal grasslands and is found throughout Europe, North Africa and Western Asia.

Sugar beet is a crop from which sugar can be harvested, due to the high concentration of sucrose in its root. Around 8.9m tonnes was produced in the UK last year, with the majority grown in East Anglia. Sugar beets are grown worldwide in regions which do not experience severe frost, preferring temperatures of 15-19 °C. Due to their ancestry as coastal plants, they are well adapted to grow in salty, alkaline soils and can tolerate drought. 

Scientific significance.

One recent area of research into sugar beets has been their possible application as feedstock for biofuel. It is estimated that the use of sugar beet could double ethanol production per hectare, making production more efficient and therefore less costly. Biofuels are becoming increasingly important on a planet fast running out of conventional energy sources and turning to renewable ones that are less polluting. 

Beet is also an important crop to study when looking into the evolution of plant pathogens. Due to the fact that the two subspecies are closely related, down to the relatively recent domestication of the crop, the pathogens of sea beet can infect sugar beet. By studying the two subspecies, we can understand how changes that occur in the evolution of the pathogen in the wild can impact its success in infecting agricultural crops.

It’s a rare glimpse into the beginning of how this process occurs: many of our other domesticated crops have been around for thousands of years, and are almost unrecognisable compared to their wild relatives.

In order to feed a growing human population, we must reduce yield loss to pathogens. However, plant pathogens are quick to adapt to novel pathogen reduction solutions, causing agriculture to suffer from yield loss. Greater understanding of the evolution of plant pathogens is therefore vital to improve food security.

What Earlham Institute is doing.

The aim of our research is to protect crops by better understanding the evolution of wild plants and their associated diseases. 

In collaboration with the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) and researchers in Germany and Denmark, we are using sugar beet as a model to understand the evolutionary dynamics between wild sea beets and their pathogens. By understanding this simple system, we can apply this knowledge to other crop systems to understand how to better protect our crops and feed more people.

Related reading.