MU center tries to fend off crop-killing fungus

Sunday, July 31, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:20 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

PORTAGEVILLE — The threat of an easily transmittable fungus has forced soybean researchers in Missouri’s Bootheel region to go into high gear.

Allen Wrather and Grover Shannon, at MU’s far-flung Delta Research Center, are among those trying to find a way to divert the potentially devastating Asian soybean rust from Missouri’s leading crop.

“If soybean rust developed in Missouri, and the weather conditions were proper, we could easily lose half our crop,” said Wrather, a plant pathologist at the center.

But the hot, dry stretch that has affected most of the state may be a blessing for soybean farmers. Shannon, a soybean breeder, said recent weather has made the threat of soybean rust almost nonexistent this growing season.

“I doubt it will be a major problem,” Shannon said.

Soybeans — as well as corn, cotton and rice — are a big deal to the Delta Research Center. The arm of MU is about 230 miles southeast of Columbia in Pemiscot County, one of two Missouri counties that jut into Arkansas and Tennessee.

Portageville, a community with slightly more than 3,000 people, has been home to the research center for about 45 years. In this part of the state, flat farm fields dominate, broken up only occasionally by small towns and patches of trees.

The Delta Research Center — named for a region long ago flooded by the Gulf of Mexico — is essentially several research fields established as an MU satellite campus in 1959. A brick administration building is the work base for researchers when they aren’t out in the fields.

Inside, the black and gold floor tiles immediately suggest a connection to MU. Some researchers, such as Shannon, routinely make the four-hour drive to Columbia, to meet with colleagues. The Delta Center has nine faculty members who lead their specific research teams, often made up of graduate students and research technicians. Two of the nine spend most of their time on soybeans, and the center is renowned for its work on the crop.

Wrather said Missouri growers plant about 5 million acres of soybeans and produce an average of 32 bushels per acre, or about 160 million bushels a year. With the right weather conditions — a cool, moist environment — and growers neglecting to take preventive measures, Missouri farmers could lose nearly 80 million bushels of soybeans in one growing season, he said.

David Sleper, an agronomy professor based on the Columbia campus, said soybean rust has been spotted in Georgia, Florida and Alabama but hasn’t been reported in Missouri yet this year. Like Shannon, Sleper is a soybean breeder affiliated with the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology, housed in the Life Sciences Center.

For soybean growers, the longer the disease stays away, the better. Soybean experts at the center say the next three weeks are critical for this year’s crop.

“Every day we go without rust lessens the impact of rust if it does form,” said Bill Weibold, an associate professor and affiliate of the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology at MU. Missouri is among the top 10 soybean producers nationally.

Researchers at the Delta Center are working to develop soybean varieties that are resistant to the fungus using genetic engineering and breeding. They are also looking at other ways to slow the spread of soybean rust.

Now, soybean varieties grown in the United States do not have a natural resistance to soybean rust. Shannon, at the Delta Center, said current varieties of foreign soybean plants resistant to the rust don’t produce the yield growers want.

Shannon said that progress has been made in creating some species of rust-resistant soybeans, but that it will be about six years until they perfect and release resistant seeds.

Until then, fungicides are the only defense against this fast-spreading disease. Wrather said that if rust is spotted in a nearby field, growers should start spraying their crops. But he said there are some exceptions to this recommendation.

“If the area to the south has been moist and cool, which is good for rust, and a field a hundred miles away is hot and dry, which is bad for rust, then they may not have to spray there,” Wrather said.

With a commitment to research and the Missouri farm in mind, faculty at the Delta Center seem proud of their teamwork.

“We have some excellent people,” Shannon said. “We probably have some of the top-notch researchers, and at the same time the chemistry of working together is probably something that you can’t put a value on.”

The faculty also credits the center’s success to the interaction that many of them have with growers. Thomas “Jake” Fisher, superintendent of the center for the past 16 years, is also a farmer near Portageville and said that gives him a more personal perspective on the research under way.

“It brings me back down to Earth,” Fisher said. “I have a great respect for farmers, and when you get out there and work daybreak to dusk it puts something in your heart.”

The center also works with other problems facing Missouri soybean growers.

“One of the big claims to fame of this institution is soybean cyst nematode” — a microscopic worm that steals nutrients from the root of the plant — Shannon said. “Just about everything we release is resistant” to cyst nematode.

The center will benefit from federal funds recently secured by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo. The funds are part of a spending bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee in June, but have yet to be voted on by the full Senate. This includes part of the $737,000 earmarked for soybean cyst nematode research in Missouri.

Aside from focusing on soybeans, researchers at the center also work on weed, insect and disease control with cotton and rice.

Many of the researchers work directly with farmers in the Bootheel. Through MU Extension, they are able to help farmers with problems ranging from diagnosing diseased plants to advising farmers on how to deal with drought or flooding.

“We consider ourselves as serving the seven Bootheelcounties,” Fisher said, “and feel like we do a lot of good.”

Soybean Rust

What is it: Asian soybean rust affects developing soybeans.

How it’s spread: Spores are spread by the wind and storms.

What’s affected: The spores infect healthy plants and steal nutrients that would otherwise go to the maturing beans.

What’s not affected: Soybeans that have already matured aren’t affected by the fungus, which is why the later the disease strikes the less it will impact production.

Main symptom: The appearance of lesions on the leaf of the plant. These lesions appear about 10 days after infection. Later, pustules form on the underside of the leaf and release more spores into the environment.

History: Asian soybean rust was first reported in Japan in 1902. It was also reported in tropical regions of Southeast Asia as well as Australia. In the century since, it has moved to other parts of the world including South America and Africa. The first U.S. report of this rust was in 2004 in the Gulf Coast states — and in south-east Missouri.

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