BGSU biologists fight soybean disease, train new scientists

BGSU biologists (left to right) Karen Sirum, Paul Morris and Vipaporn Phuntumart in a field of soybeans last fall

BOWLING GREEN, O—A new research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is bad news for soybean diseases but good news for undergraduates studying biology. Three Bowling Green State University biologists — Drs. Paul Morris, Vipaporn Phuntumart and Karen Sirum — are part of a team of 28 scientists that has been awarded a five-year, $9.28 million grant by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Led by Dr. Brett Tyler of Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, the project’s goal is to engineer new disease-resistance strategies to reduce soybean crop yield losses due to root and stem rots.

In addition, because of the increasing amounts of genetic data that are becoming available, part of the funding will be used to prepare a new generation of biologists to sequence DNA and analyze information related to plant and other genomes. BGSU will receive $350,000 over the five-year period for Morris, Phuntumart and Sirum to train six undergraduate students each year of the program.

Science education research specialist Sirum, one of 29 selected as founding members of the National Science Foundation-funded Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research, will have overall responsibility for assessment and implementation of the undergraduate research programs at the five participating institutions, supported by a shared USDA_NIFA investment of $1.2 million. One goal will be to establish criteria for undergraduate genome annotation competency and define standards for achievement and certification that students completing the program can add to their resumes.

Soybean exports were valued at $21.9 billion in 2009, but yield losses due to infections by the soil pathogen Phytophthora sojae are now estimated to exceed $300 million per year due to the decreasing effectiveness of resistance genes in presently used cultivars.  Cultivars are varieties of a plant that are selected for their desirable qualities.

The goal of the new study is to take advantage of genome sequence data that is now available for P. sojae, along with the rapidly increasing understanding of the mechanisms used by this group of pathogens to cause disease, in order to engineer new disease-fighting strategies into soybean cultivars now used in the Midwest.

A three-pronged approach will be implemented to ensure the success of the project. One, research scientists will employ high throughput molecular techniques to rapidly screen wild varieties of soybeans to identify new resistance genes that could be genetically transferred into soybean cultivars. Two, crop extension scientists across the Midwest will survey soybean fields to determine the genetic variation of this pathogen in soybean growing regions, so farmers can better select varieties of soybeans that will further reduce the economic impact of this disease. From the network of five universities, three will implement a research program to train undergraduates in oomycete bioinformatics and functional analysis.

“The new grant-funded program has the potential to be a model for integrating genome annotation into the core training of a new generation of undergraduates. The research experience they gain will enable them to graduate and join competitive research programs elsewhere,” Sirum said.

Outreach activities are a key part of this grant. The project will also build on the popular Kids’ Tech University program sponsored by the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and establish a new Kids’ Tech University program at BGSU.

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(Posted April 08, 2011 )