UCF Biologist Chase Mason today was awarded a $450,000 grant from the Foundation for Food & Agricultural Research to turn around “audacious” food and agricultural research, which may lead to more sustainable food supplies.

Mason’s project focuses on determining the genetic control mechanisms that induce a plant’s natural chemical defenses against harmful pests and pathogens. The goal is to figure out how to trigger a plant’s defenses to reduce the reliance on expensive pesticides used in the farming industry. If these triggers could be found and exploited, it may result in consumers eating food treated with fewer pesticides and reducing production costs. The work is important for securing sustainable food supplies under a rapidly changing climate that may increase pest and pathogen outbreaks, Masons says. He conducted preliminary work in this area using sunflowers.

“Farmers spend a lot of money to spray plants with pesticides to make sure they can yield a good crop,” Mason says. “There are some tradeoffs with that. It’s expensive, hard to time correctly, can hurt pollinators like bees, and there can be runoff. If we can leverage natural plant chemical defenses, it would be useful for sunflowers and eventually for other crops.”Mason is one of eight national recipients and the only one in Florida to receive grants from the foundation. The Washington-based organization described the New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award as an investment in promising early career scientists. The money – a total of $3.5 million – should allow recipients “to conduct audacious food and agricultural research,” according to a news release.

“FFAR is proud to foster the pioneering food and agriculture research of the 2020 New Innovator awardees,” said executive director Sally Rockey. “Because the New Innovator Award provides significant funds, it provides an excellent foundation for scientists pursuing bold scientific breakthroughs. By investing in their research today, we are ensuring a future sustainable food and agriculture industry.”

Sunflowers are a multi-billion-dollar crop, and the third most important oilseed crop globally with more than 50 million metric tons produced annually, Mason says. One of the few crops domesticated in North America, the 51 wild species native to the continent provide genetic resources to search for chemical-defense systems.

While the sunflower plant was domesticated around 5,000 years ago, it was only bred as a modern oilseed crop in the past 200 years. During the improvement process, cultivated sunflowers were bred to grow faster and produce larger yields, Mason says. However, everything comes at a price, he says, and the sunflower’s natural defenses against pests may have been altered or reduced. Wild sunflower species provide an excellent group of flowers to study because of their ability to thrive in a wide range of habitats across North America, Mason says.

Mason’s lab, which includes about 15 undergraduate and graduate students, works with a variety of flowers and plants. They study how they grow, how they defend themselves against pests and pathogens, and how they reproduce.

“I actually started out studying zoology, but I kept getting drawn to plants because they define ecosystems and they’re just so weird,” Mason says. “They’re fascinating. So much is going on inside of them … photosynthesis, their metabolism, their immunity systems … there’s so much action, but at much different time scales than we are used to, and often silent. When you study it closely, it’s crazy how much is going on. It’s like having aliens living among us.”

Mason works in his lab or at the greenhouse at the main UCF campus where he has rows and rows of sunflowers and other plants in various stages of growth, trying to unlock their secrets.

Mason has a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Florida and a doctorate in plant biology from the University of Georgia. He was also the Katharine H. Putnam Fellow in Plant Science at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University before joining UCF in 2017.