College of Wooster plays role in crop research

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WOOSTER, Ohio — A national effort to protect one of the America’s most-valued food crops will include two scientists from The College of Wooster.

Dean Fraga and Bill Morgan, both professors of biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, will lend their expertise to a multidisciplinary team of researchers charged with creating new disease-management technologies to improve the sustainability of soybean production.

The group, which includes representatives from 18 institutions, has received a $9.28 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture to carry out the research.
The recipients of the grant are Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which will distribute funding to other members of the research team.

Root rot target

The primary objective is to target oomycete pathogens of soybean, including a deadly soilborne pathogen known as Phytoghithora sojae, which causes root and stem rot in soybean, a $32 billion annual crop in the U.S.

“Soybean is a very important crop for the United States,” said Brett Tyler, professor at Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and principal investigator for the project. “It is used in the foods we eat, the oil we cook with, and in animal feed. Soybean oil is also used extensively in biodiesel production.”

Tyler went on to explain that by mitigating several major diseases, the sustainability of crop production will be improved.

“This will benefit small farmers as well as larger commercial producers,” he said, “and (it) will strengthen our nation’s food security system by keeping food prices down.”

Wooster’s role

Destructive diseases caused by these pathogens have an impact on soybean, as well as a range of other important plants in agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and natural ecosystems, including peppers, squash cucumbers, grapes, tomatoes, and potatoes — which is where the Wooster scientists come in.

Morgan’s recent research has focused on how the pathogen, Phytophthora, uses proteins to invade the host by entering the tissue and destroying the plant, and how these proteins could become targets for controlling the pathogen.

Fraga’s involvement came about indirectly. He has been studying the affect of phosphagen kinases from an evolutionary perspective, and was called in to study a protein in the pathogen to determine its suitability as a pesticide target.

By inhibiting the protein, the ability of the pathogen to infect the host could be reduced.

“Plant genetic resistance is the most effective way to manage disease,” said M.A. Saghai Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech and project co-principal investigator.

“We want to develop a disease-resistant, high-yielding, and environmentally-safe soybean crop, and while this project involves mainly soybean, we expect spin-offs for other crops, as this research will be applicable to oomycete or fungi disease in many other plant species.”

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