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Tracking Sunflower Traits

Thursday, February 1, 2001
filed under: Planting Systems

Tracking Sunflower Traits

New $4 million research project will identify, catalog genes to help build better hybrids

You’d have to look hard to find an acre of sunflower in Oregon. However, some of the nation’s most cutting-edge sunflower research is taking place at Oregon State University.

“My program might be an enigma to some people,” admits Steven Knapp, professor of crop and soil science at OSU. How did Knapp become involved in sunflower research? Knapp is the Paul C. Berger endowed chair for oilseeds research, which was created with the mission to develop new oilseeds at OSU, he explains. “When I started looking at things, there was a wealth of good breeding work being done by the Fargo USDA group and many others, but sunflower was a neglected species in the areas of basic genomics and biotechnology, and I saw a great research opportunity.”

He credits Jerry Miller, research geneticist at the USDA Northern Crop Science Lab, Fargo, ND, as among the leading sunflower researchers who helped him establish his sunflower genetics research at OSU. “Jerry has provided me with seed for numerous studies and has been a great colleague,” says Knapp.

Since 1993, Knapp has managed to secure over $5 million in funding for sunflower research through competitive grants from USDA, grants and contracts from seed and biotechnology companies, and the OSU endowed chair. “I felt that sunflower was an ideal target for seed oil engineering. I still feel that way, but with the GMO controversy the way it is now, we have backed off that objective a bit.”

Now, Knapp is focusing more on categorizing and cataloging the genes of a sunflower plant, which aids in conventional and transgenic sunflower breeding.

Knapp and researchers from the University of California Davis, Indiana University, and the University of Massachusetts recently won a $4 million research grant through the USDA Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems Plant Genome Program. The grant will be used to study genetic traits in lettuce and sunflower.


“Many people are perplexed by the lettuce-sunflower connection,” says Knapp, “but lettuce and sunflower are members of the same botanical family, the Compositae. It is the single largest family of plants with 10,000 species worldwide.” Knapp will oversee the sunflower component of the grant, and Richard Michelmore at the University of California- Davis will oversee the lettuce research.

“Richard and I have been collaborating for several years and believed that we could secure significant funding by teaming up our labs and species,” says Knapp. “Because lettuce and sunflower belong to different evolutionary branches in the Compositae, we predicted that we could use genes isolated from lettuce and sunflower as tools for rapidly isolating, mapping, and studying genes in other species in the family.”

Gene sequencing research under the $4 million grant began last fall, and will run three years. Knapp’s role is to develop a comprehensive gene catalog and gene maps for sunflower.

It is estimated that sunflower has about 25,000 genes in its makeup that dictate everything from plant growth, color, size, and pest resistance. It would be difficult to identify all the genes expressed in a sunflower plant, but Knapp is confident he will be able to catalog and gain a better understanding of the most economically important traits. Knapp’s research group has subcontracted with PE Celera, the company that sequenced the human genome, to help sequence sunflower and lettuce.

“Our goal is to identify 15,000 gene sequences from (sunflower). We expect to identify genes involved in disease resistance, resistance to plant stress, oil synthesis, and many other traits,” he says.

The gene sequences will then be deposited in public gene databases, and made available to botanists, geneticists, plant breeders, oil chemists, and seed and biotechnology companies. Knapp says the impact on producers, processors, and end users will ultimately be hybrids with superior agronomic or value-added traits, such as greater disease resistance, or oils with reduced saturated fatty acids and greater oxidative stability. —Tracy Sayler

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