Posts Tagged: Emily C. Dooley
The $6.2 million grant centers on protecting crops in the future
The federal government is awarding $6.2 million to University of California, Davis, to study how to use breeding and genetic information to protect strawberry crops from future diseases and pests.
The four-year grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) centers on addressing expanding and emerging threats to strawberries, a popular fruit packed with Vitamin C and key to the diets of many Americans.
Enhanced plant breeding, gene editing and other technologies will be key to ensuring strawberry crops are sustainable in the face of climate change and possible restrictions on chemical use, said Steve Knapp, director of the Strawberry Breeding Center and a distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Sciences.
“We need to have the technology so that we can deal with the challenges strawberries face around the world,” Knapp said. “Can we use genetic knowledge to change the DNA in a specific way to get the resistance we need?”
The grant award was one of 25 announced Oct. 5 by NIFA – an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – as part of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative program, which addresses “key challenges of national, regional and multistate importance in sustaining all components of food and agriculture…,” the agency said.
The strawberry industry has lagged behind crops like tomato and wheat when it comes to genetic and technical innovation, Knapp said, and the grant signifies that “now they want the foot on the accelerator.”
A key priority is identifying whether changing DNA molecules can improve disease resistance and what technologies would be needed. Ensuring some genes are expressed while others are suppressed would be part of the analysis.
“We're trying to build in natural resistance to pathogens through the genes that already exist but could be modified with this knowledge,” Knapp said. “If we were able to edit a gene that improves disease resistance, people would want us to use that in breeding.”
The intent is to produce disease-resistant cultivars and identify better ways to diagnose, prevent and manage disease. The research project will also include an economic forecast evaluating the consequences of production changes and communicating with farmers about the laboratory advances, according to the grant proposal.
Gitta Coaker from plant pathology and Mitchell Feldmann, Marta Bjornson and Juan Debernardi from plant sciences are participating in the research, as are scientists from California Polytechnic State University, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC Berkeley, University of Florida and USDA's Agricultural Research Service./h3>/h3>
Research shows land managers should clean nest boxes in autumn to avoid disturbing the raptors
When it comes to American barn owls, forget spring cleaning.
The best time of year to clean out nest boxes to ready them for breeding pairs is the fall months of September through November, according to research out of the University of California, Davis, that analyzed nearly a century of banding and other records.
In a paper published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, researchers found that the median egg laying date for barn owls (Tyto furcata) in California is Feb. 20, so cleaning nest boxes in the fall is recommended.
“The risk is you could disrupt a nest that has already started,” said lead author Ryan Bourbour, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology in the Department of Animal Science at the time of the study. “We want to reduce disturbances to nesting pairs even in the weeks prior to egg laying.”
American barn owls offer a natural way for land managers and agricultural operations to control pests, because the raptors eat mice, gophers and rats. One breeding pair can consume up to 2,000 rodents annually, according to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
But natural tree cavities and old barn structures are not as plentiful as they once were, so installing nest boxes can attract the barn owls. And land managers who spend money installing these “nest box networks” have long asked about the best time of year to do maintenance and cleaning. Planning cleaning and maintenance well before the start of the breeding season is “part of making that nest box worthwhile,” Bourbour said.
Pellets add up
After eggs hatch, nestlings spend their early days eating and living in the nest boxes until they are able to leave the nest, said Breanna Martinico, another paper author and an animal science Ph.D. candidate in ecology.
The nestling period of roughly 65 days is considered long.
“That's two months where owls are living and growing exclusively in that nest box,” said Martinico, who is also a UC Cooperative Extension human-wildlife interactions advisor in Napa, Lake and Solano counties.
As many as five or six nestlings are typically in a box, and they eat up to four or five rodents each day. Nestlings swallow their prey whole, and what isn't digested — fur and bones — is coughed up in round or oval-like pellets.
“They're in there for seven to eight weeks just regurgitating these pellets,” Bourbour said. “A lot of pellets pile up over the course of a breeding season and a lot of these boxes need to be cleaned out.”
From anecdotal to data
Discussions about how early the breeding season starts have mostly been anecdotal. To get a better picture, the paper's authors analyzed 96 years of banding records from the United States Geological Survey Bird Banding Lab and 39 years of intake records from California Raptor Center at UC Davis. Both databases helped them estimate the typical egg laying time of year in California, Martinico said.
Having this information can help land managers ensure maintenance is done and nest boxes are safe for the next breeding pair, helping barn owl populations while also benefiting agricultural operations.
“We can give them tools to manage barn owl nest box networks effectively and maximize pest control through owls,” Martinico said.
Additional co-authors include Emily Phillips, Jessica Schlarbaum and Joshua Hull in the Department of Animal Science, Michelle Hawkins in the Department of Medicine and Epidemiology at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and Sara Kross from Columbia University.
Funding came from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.
The journal article is entitled Banding records of nestling barn owls reveal optimal timing for nest box maintenance in California./h3>/h3>/h3>
Discovery could reduce nitrogen pollution, save farmers billions
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have found a way to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizers needed to grow cereal crops. The discovery could save farmers in the United States billions of dollars annually in fertilizer costs while also benefiting the environment.
The research comes out of the lab of Eduardo Blumwald, a distinguished professor of plant sciences, who has found a new pathway for cereals to capture the nitrogen they need to grow.
The discovery could also help the environment by reducing nitrogen pollution, which can lead to contaminated water resources, increased greenhouse gas emissions and human health issues. The study was published in the journal Plant Biotechnology.
Nitrogen is key to plant growth, and agricultural operations depend on chemical fertilizers to increase productivity. But much of what is applied is lost, leaching into soils and groundwater. Blumwald's research could create a sustainable alternative.
“Nitrogen fertilizers are very, very expensive,” Blumwald said. “Anything you can do to eliminate that cost is important. The problem is money on one side, but there are also the harmful effects of nitrogen on the environment.”
A new pathway to natural fertilizer
Blumwald's research centers on increasing the conversion of nitrogen gas in the air into ammonium by soil bacteria — a process known as nitrogen fixation.
Legumes such as peanuts and soybeans have root nodules that can use nitrogen-fixing bacteria to provide ammonium to the plants. Cereal plants like rice and wheat don't have that capability and must rely on taking in inorganic nitrogen, such as ammonia and nitrate, from fertilizers in the soil.
“If a plant can produce chemicals that make soil bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen gas, we could modify the plants to produce more of these chemicals,” Blumwald said. “These chemicals will induce soil bacterial nitrogen fixation and the plants will use the ammonium formed, reducing the amount of fertilizer used.”
Blumwald's team used chemical screening and genomics to identify compounds in rice plants that enhanced the nitrogen-fixing activity of the bacteria.
Then they identified the pathways generating the chemicals and used gene editing technology to increase the production of compounds that stimulated the formation of biofilms. Those biofilms contain bacteria that enhanced nitrogen conversion. As a result, nitrogen-fixing activity of the bacteria increased, as did the amount of ammonium in the soil for the plants.
“Plants are incredible chemical factories,” he said. “What this could do is provide a sustainable alternative agricultural practice that reduces the use of excessive nitrogen fertilizers.”
The pathway could also be used by other plants. A patent application on the technique has been filed by the University of California and is pending.
Dawei Yan, Hiromi Tajima, Howard-Yana Shapiro, Reedmond Fong and Javier Ottaviani from UC Davis contributed to the research paper, as did Lauren Cline from Bayer Crop Science. Ottaviani is also a research associate at Mars Edge.
The research was funded by the Will W. Lester Endowment. Bayer Crop Science is supporting further research on the topic.
Editor's note: Blumwald is affiliated with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources through the Agricultural Experiment Station at UC Davis./h3>/h3>
The project will also train plant breeders for the future
Wheat products account for roughly 20% of what people eat every day around the globe. As climate changes, wheat crops must adapt to new weather patterns to keep up with demand.
The University of California, Davis, is leading a five-year, $15 million research project to accelerate wheat breeding to meet those new climate realities, as well as to train a new generation of plant breeders.
“Everything is less stable,” said Jorge Dubcovsky, a plant sciences distinguished professor who is leading the grant research. “Everything is changing so you need to be fast. You need to be able to adapt fast.”
The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture will create a coordinated consortium of 41 wheat breeders and researchers from 22 institutions in 20 states. Researchers from Mexico and the United Kingdom are also participating.
Breeding needs to speed up
“Breeding crops for the future will require new traits, breeding platforms built for quick transfer of traits to elite cultivars, coordination of breeding efforts in public and private domains, and training for current and future plant breeders and researchers,” NIFA said in an announcement about this grant and others related to breeding.
The program involves on-the-ground research, identifying molecular markers and data analysis from multiple institutions to determine genes that will help wheat crops mitigate the effects of climate change. Plant breeding will follow to prove out those findings.
Wheat is unlike other crops in that 60% of the plant varieties — generating about $4 billion in annual production — are developed by public breeding programs rather than private corporations. In many states, wheat growers tax themselves to support basic breeding efforts at public institutions like UC Davis.
Increased coordinated research
The NIFA grant money will lead to more coordinated, sophisticated research. “This grant allows us to do breeding at a level that a good, modern company would do,” Dubcovsky said. “This grant is essential to maintain modern and effective public breeding programs in the U.S.”
The consortium will bring together data and research from across institutions, allowing for more expansive analysis while reducing redundancies. “We can take advantage of the data from everybody,” he said. “By doing that we don't need to duplicate efforts.”
A team in Texas will analyze plant images taken from drones at each institution to extract information about plant growth, water use, nitrogen levels and other data. “Using technology, we can see beyond our human capabilities,” Dubcovsky said. “You can extract a huge amount of information from every plant variety.”
The data from those images will allow researchers to document the plants throughout the life cycle and determine which plants fare better under certain conditions. Genotyping will help researchers obtain information about the plant genome. The combination of these two types of data could speed up breeding cycles, helping wheat crops adapt to a changing environment.
“If we can breed fast, we can adapt to change,” Dubcovsky said. “We are trying to make sustainable improvements in time.”
Training the next generation
The project will also train a cohort of 20 plant Ph.D. students in active breeding programs where they will participate in fieldwork, collect data from drones and DNA samples, and learn to integrate that information to accelerate wheat breeding. The students will participate in online and face-to-face workshops, as well as educational events and national scientific conferences.
Colorado State University, Cornell University, Kansas State University, Michigan State University, Montana State University, Oklahoma State University, Purdue University, South Dakota State University, Texas A&M University, University of Idaho, University of Illinois, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin, Utah State University, Virginia Tech, Washington State University, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service branches in North Dakota, Washington, Kansas and North Carolina are also participating in the consortium./h3>/h3>/h3>/h2>
Findings could help wine industry adapt to climate change
Scientists at UC Davis have identified new root traits that help grapevines resist drought. The findings, published in the journal Annals of Botany, could speed up the development of grape rootstocks that protect vines from dry conditions, helping the grape and wine industry adapt to climate change.
The research, led by Department of Viticulture and Enology Assistant Professor Megan Bartlett, comes as 80% of California is experiencing extreme drought.
Most grapevines are not rooted directly into the ground but are instead grafted onto a rootstock, which forms the underground part of the plant and supports growth above ground.
“Rootstocks are an important tool to manage water stress,” Bartlett said. “Our goal was to identify traits that make rootstocks drought tolerant, so that grape breeders can amplify these traits in new varieties.”
Root cell traits
The study focused on traits measuring drought responses in living root cells.
The research specifically identified capacitance – which measures how much roots shrink as they dehydrate – as an important trait for drought tolerance.
“The water that enters the roots has to cross through a band of living cells to reach the xylem – the network of pipes that carries water up to the leaves,” said Bartlett. Most research has focused on xylem traits, but the living cells are often the first to be damaged during drought.
Water stress can shrink, deform, or even kill the living cells, causing the roots to shrivel away from the soil and lose access to the remaining soil water. Vines are then unable to replace water lost to evaporation and are forced to close the stomata – the small pores on the leaves that take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis – to prevent severe dehydration. But closing the stomata stops photosynthesis and starves the vine of the sugars it needs to grow and ripen fruit.
This study is the first to test whether traits measuring root shrinkage and cell collapse can capture differences in rootstock drought tolerance.
Cell traits and drought tolerance
The researchers grafted Chardonnay onto eight commercial rootstocks. Half of the vines experienced drought conditions and half were kept well-watered in a greenhouse experiment.
The study found the eight rootstocks were surprisingly diverse and varied widely in their traits. The rootstocks also appeared to acclimate to drought by changing their traits in that the droughted vines were less susceptible to shrinkage and cell collapse than the well-watered vines.
Among the traits, capacitance was especially important for drought tolerance. The rootstocks with a lower capacitance (less root shrinkage) were better able to maintain photosynthesis during drought than other rootstocks.
“This research gives us a new trait to target for breeding more drought tolerant rootstocks,” study co-author and Ph.D. student Gabriela Sinclair said.
The research was supported by the American Vineyard Foundation, UC Davis, and by donations to the department from the Rossi family. Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the USDA-ARS Crops Pathology and Genetics Research Unit also contributed to the study./h3>/h3>/h2>