Researchers awarded $6.5M to advance plant disease resistance with genomics

watermelons_blogA national team of 20 scientists led by Michigan State University (MSU) has been awarded a $6.5 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to accelerate the development of disease-resistant cucurbit crops through leveraging applied genomics.

According to a recent article, the Cucurbitaceae family includes a number of high-value crop plants such as watermelons, cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins. While Cucurbitaceae crops generate an estimated $1.7 billion a year in farm gate value in the U.S. alone, viral and fungal pathogens remain a significant hurdle to their cultivation.

To combat these issues, the research team will develop breeder-friendly genomic tools to aid in cucurbit production. Using genomics is the most cost effective as well as the most environmentally favorable solution to the problems of disease resistance since it allows growers to apply less fungicide. Cucurbit producers and processors consistently identify diseases as a primary constraint, causing severe reductions in yield, quality and profitability, the article states.

Rebecca Grumet, MSU horticulture professor, and lead researcher on the project, said that rapid advances in genomic technology and recent genome sequencing of the four cucurbit species make them ideally poised for genomics-assisted breeding.

“With the advent of next generation DNA sequencing technologies, we can approach problems in ways that were not possible before and can use those methods to identify genetic regions within the crop that are associated with disease resistance,” Grumet said in the article. “The primary limitation for growers of cucurbit crops is losses due to disease, especially fungal and viral. And in some cases, these can completely wipe out a crop.”

In addition, the project will:

  • Develop sustainable genomic and bioinformatics web-based platforms for genotyping by sequencing, sequence data processing and analysis, breeding data information management, and genome-wide association studies.
  • Map resistance locations and develop markers for introgression of resistances to key cucurbit diseases.
  • Develop models to define, parameterize, simulate and analyze costs of cucurbit production and disease control.
  • Develop a centralized cucurbit disease website providing readily accessible information in English and Spanish for disease diagnosis and control.

The article states that the project will also facilitate connections between genomicists, breeders, pathologists and economists, providing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) training for undergraduate, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.

Other institutions involved in the study include: Boyce Thompson Institute; USDA-ARS, Charleston, S.C.; Cornell University; USDA-ARS Salinas, Calif.; Texas A&M University; North Carolina State University; USDA-ARS, University of Wisconsin and West Virginia State University.

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