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Inside the Blue Roof Inn

Saturday, November 1, 2008
filed under: Research and Development

An article in the July 1978 issue of The Sunflower presented an overview of research being conducted on this crop by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Scientific and Education Administration (SEA). The agency at that time conducted sunflower research in Fargo, N.D., Bushland, Texas, Davis, Calif., Beltsville, Md., and Athens, Ga. SEA scientists at Fargo were scattered across the North Dakota State University campus, located in separate buildings with NDSU counterparts in their various disciplines.

Much has changed since then. SEA became known as the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). The sunflower programs at Bushland, Davis and Athens ceased long ago. And all the ARS Fargo sunflower researchers are now housed in the same building: the impressive Northern Crop Science Laboratory, informally referred to as the “Blue Roof Inn” (which the sunflower contingent shares with several other ARS research units). And finally, of course, the group’s personnel and programs are quite different from 30 years ago, as demanded by the passage of time and changing priorities.

Today, six principal scientists (soon to add a seventh) — and their support staffs — comprise the USDA-ARS Sunflower Research Unit at Fargo:

Brady Vick, the sunflower unit’s research leader, is a biochemist who has been with USDA at Fargo since the mid-1970s. His research focuses on ways of reducing the fatty acid composition of sunflower oil. Although its saturated fat content of up to 12% is already low compared to most other vegetable oils, the goal is to bring it down to around 8%, Vick says. The movement of the sunflower industry to NuSun® varieties has helped considerably. The emergence of the NuSun mid-oleic sector was spurred by germplasm bred and released by now-retired ARS sunflower geneticist Jerry Miller. Vick participated in its development by conducting the fatty acid analysis and analytical work.

Tom Gulya, research plant pathologist, joined the Fargo ARS unit in late 1978. He is charged with studying the epidemiology and control of important diseases of sunflower in the United States. In that effort, he works closely with other ARS scientists, state university researchers and the seed industry to evaluate disease resistance in both (1) cultivated breeding lines and (2) wild sunflower accessions. Much of Gulya’s work in recent years has focused on Sclerotinia stalk and head rot. As reported in the March/April 2008 issue of The Sunflower, substantial progress is now being made in the effort to develop commercial sunflower hybrids with good resistance to Sclerotinia.

• Research entomologist Larry Charlet joined the Fargo group at the same time as Tom Gulya. His objective is to reduce crop losses and input costs for sunflower producers throughout the Great Plains by developing integrated management systems for key problem insects. In recent years, much of Charlet’s work has been on host plant resistance — screening voluminous material from several sources (including USDA accessions and crosses) to find sunflower lines that possess tolerance to one or more seed-eating or stalk-infesting insects.

Gerald Seiler is a research botanist who was stationed at Bushland before coming to Fargo in 1988. He is an authority on wild sunflower species, having collected and evaluated them for decades. The goal of his work is to increase the genetic diversity of cultivated sunflower through the incorporation of useful traits from the wilds — be it disease resistance, insect tolerance, drought tolerance or a host of other characteristics. Finding those traits in wild populations is just the first step; much more difficult and time-consuming is the process of incorporating the sought trait(s) into cultivated germplasm.

Chao-Chien Jan is another “transplant,” having first worked with sunflower during the 1970s in Davis, Calif. He is a cytogeneticist who works extensively in developing systems by which desirable traits from wild sunflower species can be transferred into cultivated lines. This is a very involved process, complicated by the extreme diversity of the Helianthus (sunflower) genus. There are 51 different sunflower species — 14 annual and 37 perennial. Some are diploids, some are tetraploids, and others are hexaploids. Getting them to cross with another species is often a daunting proposition, requiring novel and highly complicated approaches.

Brent Hulke is the newest member of the ARS sunflower unit, having replaced long-time research geneticist Jerry Miller in 2007. His mission is to integrate desirable production traits (e.g., disease or insect resistance) into advanced sunflower breeding lines. Once he has developed a line to the point where it can benefit the seed industry, it is released to the public so commercial breeders can then utilize it as desired in their programs to improve the hybrids planted by farmers. Hulke also adapts new breeding technologies to sunflower (e.g., marker-assisted selection) to allow for faster, easier selection of expensive or difficult-to-study traits.

• The newest member of the ARS team comes on board at the end of November. She is Lili Qi (pronounced Chee), a research molecular geneticist. A major effort of Qi’s research will be to develop DNA markers of important agronomic traits of sunflower in order to facilitate selection of germplasm with improved performance.

The mission of the USDA-ARS Sunflower Research Unit is straightforward: develop new knowledge that benefits the sunflower industry and consumers. Beneath that broad umbrella fall three avenues of responsibility: (1) develop a diverse germplasm base that leads to enhanced yield potential and quality characteristics, (3) develop methods for transferring useful traits from wild species and other sources into cultivated sunflower, and (3) develop management strategies for insects and diseases with reduced pesticide use — with the dual goals of increasing profitability and protecting the environment.

That’s a lot of ground to cover — especially with such a challenging crop and limited resources. ARS operating budgets have been particularly affected the past several years. In fiscal year 2009, for instance, operating funds per scientist are projected at $23,000 — $37,000 below the ARS annual target of $50,000. For FY 2010 and 2011, the per-scientist operating budgets are projected to be $17,000 and $11,000, respectively.

To fill the gap, the ARS group has increasingly turned to additional funding sources, including the National Sunflower Association. Recognizing the need for more sunflower acreage— and the obstacles to that presented by diseases, insects and other production problems — the NSA has invested in ARS research on an unprecedented level. Prime examples are the funding of two postdoctoral positions — one scientist is working on three insects (stem weevil, long-horned beetle and sunflower moth) of particular importance in the High Plains; the other on a relatively new insect, the sunflower seed maggot. All told, the National Sunflower Association is supporting the ARS Sunflower Research Unit to the tune of nearly $165,000 in 2008.

One of the strengths of the Fargo-based ARS Sunflower Research Unit is the degree to which their efforts are integrated in the pursuit of the unit’s mission. The increasingly productive results with Sclerotinia resistance provide a good example. “This is not just a single effort between a plant pathologist and a breeder,” points out Tom Gulya. “The beauty of our group is that we have seven different scientists, all with different skills. And in something like this, they inter-mesh very well.”

The ARS group also cooperates extensively with state university sunflower specialists. A good example is Larry Charlet’s work on finding host plant tolerance/resistance for insect pests, and his ongoing investigations into evaluating new insecticides for controlling key sunflower insects. He works closely with North Dakota State University entomologist Jan Knodel, South Dakota State University oilseed specialist Kathy Grady and Kansas State University-Colby’s Rob Aiken to maximize screening and evaluation programs. Charlet also was integral in the establishment in 2008 of a network of 36 cooperators to monitor flight activity of the sunflower moth from Texas to Canada, thereby providing an “early warning” system for producers and applicators.

In his position as research geneticist, Brent Hulke is now the “funnel” through which the fruits of ARS sunflower research flow out to the sunflower industry and the public in general. It is Hulke — like his predecessor, Jerry Miller — who takes all the disease screening discoveries, all the insect tolerance findings, all the fatty acid developments, all the wild species x cultivated advances . . . and shapes them into elite germplasm suitable for release to and use by commercial breeding programs.

With numerous production challenges facing sunflower breeders and growers, Hulke obviously can’t address every issue. Disease resistance — Sclerotinia, rust, Verticillium wilt — remains a top priority. “Sclerotinia will continue to be a focus,” the ARS geneticist states, “especially as other unit scientists work on Sclerotinia resistance and get it to the point where new resistances can be brought into elite germplasm.” Hulke adds that a postdoctoral scientist will be recruited in the near future to work with him on this disease.

Verticillium is another priority. “We’ve begun to develop populations with germ-plasm from an international source that we believe will be resistant to a new race of Verticillium that appears to be popping up — especially in the Red River Valley area,” Hulke notes. “Downy mildew remains a priority, too, although Jerry Miller did a lot of work toward the end of his career to make sure new downy mildew resistance sources were available. And they are.”

Hulke’s effort includes adapting new breeding technologies to sunflower — including marker-assisted selection. He is closely following the work of Steve Knapp (see “Building a Genomic Map of Sunflower” article) and others in genomic mapping and sequencing. Some traits are comparatively easy to “mark,” Hulke says — things like herbicide resistance, fatty acid mutations, certain diseases like rust and downy mildew. Their common denominator is that a single gene controls them.

Others are more difficult — Sclerotinia resistance and insect tolerance being prime examples. Such traits are quantitative in nature, i.e., multiple genes control them. “But it is still possible to develop markers for each of these,” Hulke adds.

While he readily recognizes the huge value of molecular genetics, Hulke stresses that what is discovered in the laboratory through genotyping must still be correlated with field observations — i.e., phenotyping — before it can be refined and released to industry. “ ‘Genotyping’ amounts to visualizing DNA — the basis of inheritance, the basis of what makes up a living organism,” he explains. “ ‘Phenotyping’ is visualizing what’s good or bad about a plant: plant height, head diameter, does it have disease problems, how many days until flowering, until physiological maturity, and so forth.

“You need to have some idea of what a plant looks like in order to make selections,” Hulke continues. “As nice as they are to have, markers are nothing more than a piece of DNA that is correlated with a trait. Without sound ‘real world’ data from the field, [markers] don’t tell us much.” — Don Lilleboe
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