Making major improvements to one of the nation’s high-value food crops — from the lab, to the field, to the market — is the goal of a project awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to scientists at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute  and Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences .
The $9.28 million grant will fund the work of a multi-disciplinary team representing a total of 18 institutions that will create new disease management technologies to improve the sustainability of soybean production. (Read an earlier report on research planned by the University of Georgia by clicking here ).
The team, which includes Extension specialists and economists as well as biologists, will establish relationships with soybean farmers and crop production and research consultants to ensure the technologies are meeting their needs and to measure potential economic value.
The research activities will focus specifically on oomycete pathogens of soybeans including Phytophthora sojae, a deadly, soilborne plant pathogen that causes root and stem rot in soybeans. Soybean production in the United States totals approximately 3.3 billion bushels annually, which has a value of almost $32 billion. However, damage to soybean crops caused by root and stem rot cause an estimated $300 million in annual yield loss for U.S. farmers.
“Soybeans are a very important crop for the United States,” explained Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Professor Brett Tyler, who serves as the project’s principal investigator. “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. The main goal of this project is to improve the sustainability of crop production by mitigating several major diseases. This will benefit small farmers as well as larger commercial producers, and will strengthen our nation’s food security system by keeping food prices down.”
Over the past 10 years, information about the biology and genomics of P. sojaeand other oomycetes (fungal-like microbes) has increased dramatically, due in large part to scientific advances and discoveries made by Tyler and his collaborators. The central aim of this project is to translate these discoveries into new disease management technologies that can be easily integrated with current farming practices to improve sustainable soybean production.
Making real-world improvements
“This project isn’t as much about new discovery as it is applying our recent discoveries from the lab to make real-world improvements,” said Tyler.
Destructive diseases caused by oomycete pathogens impact not only soybeans, but also a huge range of other plants important to agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and natural ecosystems. These include potato, tomato, peppers, squash, cucumbers, grapes, most fruit and nut trees, and many ornamental nursery plants. It is expected that many strategies the team develops to mitigate oomycete diseases of soybeans can be applied to these other plant species.
“Plant genetic resistance is the most effective way to manage disease. We want to develop a disease-resistant, high-yielding, and environmentally-safe soybean crop,” 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. “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.”
According to John McDowell, associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a co-principal investigator on the project, “We have a diverse team with a real breadth of expertise bringing many useful perspectives to this disease problem, providing a synergism to help us put some controls on this disease. Most importantly, we will be making strong connections through our extension team with the growers at the beginning of the project to make sure our work will be meeting their needs.”
Education and outreach activities are key project components. A network of colleges and universities will provide opportunities for undergraduate students to contribute to the research. The project will also build on the popular Kids’ Tech University  program sponsored by the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Virginia Cooperative Extension’s 4-H Youth Development Program, establishing a new Kids’ Tech University program at Bowling Green State University.
The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute  at Virginia Tech is a premier bioinformatics, computational biology, and systems biology research facility that uses transdisciplinary approaches to science combining information technology, biology, and medicine. These approaches are used to interpret and apply vast amounts of biological data generated from basic research to some of today’s key challenges in the biomedical, environmental, and agricultural sciences.
With more than 240 highly trained multi-disciplinary, international personnel, research at the institute involves collaboration in diverse disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, biology, plant pathology, biochemistry, systems biology, statistics, economics, synthetic biology, and medicine.
The large amounts of data generated by this approach are analyzed and interpreted to create new knowledge that is disseminated to the world’s scientific, governmental, and wider communities.