Soybeans are critical to the U.S. economy. But the third largest crop in the nation has an enemy eating away at it, a fungus in the same family as the one that caused the infamous Irish Potato Famine.

The fungus is called Phytophthora sojae. The University of Georgia and 17 other universities are part of a research project designed to find ways to stop it from destroying soybeans.

Phytophthora “is a big problem,” said Wayne Parrott, the lead UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences researcher on the project. “The thought is that we lose about half a billion dollars to this pathogen in soybeans alone. As we’ve been going toward more no-till, it favors the fungus, and the disease-resistant genes that are there are getting old and breaking down over time.”

Parrott, a crop and soil sciences professor, is studying soybean genes to see if there is a way to engineer longer-lasting economical control of the fungus. He’s looking at two methods.

The first is based on turning off a protein in the plant that the fungus needs to be pathogenic, “altering the plant a little bit so that the fungus doesn’t recognize soybeans as a host,” he said. “Soybeans without intention are signaling to the fungus, ‘hey, I’m a soybean. Come get me.’”

The second approach is based on research UGA scientists have done to keep nematodes, a type of worm, from invading various other crops.