Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences

Read about the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences and their work internationally

Man Holding Potatoes

About Us:

The Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences (PSM) is an integral part of the world-grant mission in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. In addition to serving the diverse and vibrant agricultural industry and rural communities in Michigan, the PSM faculty have projects in over a dozen countries.

Dr. Vimbayi Chimoyo demonstrating soil app in Malawi
Africa RISING Feed the Future: MSU Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Vimbayi Chimonyo demonstrating novel soil health app in Malawi to an extension office (2018)

The mission of the department is to generate new knowledge and understanding about the biology of plants and plant pathogens, and to understand the roles that soils, water and the environment play in the promotion of a sustainable and economically sound agricultural system. We are at the forefront of learning about how to manage land to produce food, fiber, fuel and fodder, while maintaining nature’s services through environmentally friendly practices. We have unique strengths in crops and soils research, collaborating with agricultural economists, geographers and community sustainability scientists, building on the internationally known International Studies and Programs at MSU (https://www.isp.msu.edu/).

We utilize an integrated approach of research, teaching and outreach. MSU agronomists provide technical support to crop producers all over the world. Our graduates pursue careers in biotechnology and plant genetics, sustainable crop production, soil chemistry, natural resources and soil conservation, international agriculture and integrated pest management. Agronomists work in the public sector and in private industry; in business and in research settings. The department has a global presence and a commitment to support communities with leading plant diagnostic services, and next-generation plant and soil laboratories.  

The department currently hosts 10 international graduate students in Plant Pathology graduate program and 24 international graduate students in Crop and Soil sciences and Plant Breeding, Genetics and Biotechnology programs. 

Dr. Kelvin Kamfwa facilitating participatory selection of yellow bean germ plasm with farmers in Zambia (2020)
Dr. Kelvin Kamfwa, a Spartan graduate and now faculty plant breeder at University of Zambia, facilitating participatory selection of yellow bean germplasm with farmers in Zambia (2020)

International Collaborations: North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, including China, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malawi, Tanzania, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Uganda, Zambia, England, Australia, Canada 

Research around the globe

  1. Karen Cichy: NSF Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) collaborative project is underway with the University of Zambia on increasing availability of fast cooking yellow dry beans rich in bioavailable iron to Zambia consumers and farmers. The objectives of this project are to 1.) deploy high yielding, fast cooking, nutrient rich dry bean breeding lines to farmers in Zambia; 2.) employ participatory dry bean variety selection with Zambian farmer groups and consumers; 3.) evaluate the adoption potential of new dry bean varieties. https://sites.nationalacademies.org/PGA/PEER/PEERscience/PGA_195556
Dr. Wezi Mango teaching crop physiology in Malawi
USAID Dr. Wezi Mango (right), a MSU graduate now teaching crop physiology in Malawi
  1. Karen Cichy: A USAID Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement collaborative project is underway with the National Crops Resources Research Institute and CIAT both in Uganda on incorporating fast cooking and high seed iron traits into new common bean varieties for Uganda through genomic selection pipelines. Faculty include Jim Kelly, Francisco Gomez, Karen Cichy and Paulo Izquierdo. The objectives are to 1.) test genomic selection models for quantitative traits (cooking time, seed iron and yield) in common bean breeding populations targeted for Uganda; 2.) incorporate genomic prediction models in the breeding pipeline to select parental lines for future crosses and to predict phenotypes for new germplasm and new environments; 3.) provide capacity building to NaCRRI and CIAT-Uganda on genomic selection methodology. https://ilci.cornell.edu/our-work/
  1. Dr. Regis Chikowo training farmer on seed production in Malawi
    USAID Africa RISING Dr. Regis Chikowo training a farmer on seed production in Malawi
    Regis Chikowo and Dr. Sieg Snapp: Africa RISING, Feed the Future recently highlighted in the MSU Futures magazine: Improving soil health key to productivity, sustainability for African farmers. USAID and IITA Feed the Future support over eight years of our Africa RISING learning lab to conduct research in partnerships with farmers, extension educators and scholars. We collaborate across many disciplines to support pathways towards sustainable food systems and resilient farming in Michigan and in Sub-Saharan Africa. These pathways are explored in the Global Change Learning Lab.  This provides “an environment where researchers can engage with partners to co-design, learn and share ideas,” notes Princess Adjei-Frimpong, a PhD BHEARD Scholar in Snapp’s group. In central Malawi, with support from USAID Feed the Future, we annually monitor thousands of fields, and conduct participatory action research with farm families, extension staff with Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
  1. Woman picking potatoes out of ground
    Woman farming potatoes
    David Douches: The Feed the Future Biotechnology Potato Partnership is a five-year cooperative agreement between Michigan State University and USAID to develop and bring to market a three R-gene Late Blight resistant potato in famer-preferred varieties in Indonesia and Bangladesh. The project includes a unique public/private sector partnership with Simplot Plant Sciences. 
  1. Krista Isaacs: This research program addresses seed systems for smallholder farmers and is rooted in a transdisciplinary perspective that integrates participatory processes, crop ecology and plant breeding with gender studies. She focuses on improving smallholder access and availability to preferred, quality seed in Africa and Latin America. Methodologically this includes elements of crop ecology and qualitative methods to learn with farmers and understand their preferences and needs so we can generate innovative strategies for improving agricultural livelihoods and maintaining genetic and agricultural diversity. She aims to practice an inclusive science, where the diverse and varied needs of all voices are heard and contribute to the process. https://www.canr.msu.edu/people/krista-isaacs
  1. Eric Patterson: International Weed Genomes Consortium. The International Weed Genomes Consortium is a collaborative group of researchers from various research institutions from around the world. It is funded by the agricultural industry to sequence weed genomes from around the world and publish those genomes for public use. Additionally, the IWGC plans on training members of the agricultural research community in the use of genomic and transcriptomic data. Dr. Eric Patterson serves on the steering board.
Princess Hayford and Dr. Sieg Snapp Ghana
MSU PhD student Princess Hayford (left) and her advisor Dr. Sieg Snapp in Ghana
  1. Sieg Snapp: Global Change Learning Lab: highlights Dr. Snapp’s participatory action research in Tanzania, Ghana, Mali, and Niger. Innovations have emerged that have been adopted by the Malawi government and in the East Africa region ( see Applied Agroecology and Innovations sections of the website). A recent project addresses extension innovations through soil fertility recommendations based on a reflectometer handheld device with funding from OpenTEAM Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research; Foundation for a Smokefree World Agricultural Transformation Initiative. Novel smart ag Apps and handheld reflectometer are also being tried out in Niger, West Africa to map degraded soils and develop locally appropriate management recommendations, this is in collaboration with Dr. Nicky Mason agricultural economist, and is supported by USAID. Snapp serves as a senior advisor to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (www.icrisat.org).
  1. Lisa Tiemann and Dr. Thom Jayne: Sustainable Agricultural Intensification and Rural Economic Transformation (SAIRET) with African Resilience and Innovation through Soil Ecology and Extension (ARISEE). This project is led by Dr. Daimon Kambewa and Dr. Sieg Snapp – a team effort supported by the Alliance for African Partnership, MSU https://aap.isp.msu.edu/. The SAIRET Initiative is a multi-disciplinary team from MSU, African universities, and international partners, including the African Development Bank, working to promote sustainable agricultural intensification and resilience in Africa. The objectives include producing technical and policy-oriented research synthesis reports to guide and inform policy makers in Africa who are seeking to sustainably increase fertilizer use. In addition, Dr. Tiemann continues to lead and/or participate in research efforts in Uganda, Malawi and Kenya focused on understanding connections between soil health, soil organic matter and farmer’s land use decisions as a current MSU Global Scholar.
Dr. Lisa Tiemann with Members of the Bunda Community-based Organization (CBO)
Dr. Lisa Tiemann with members of the Bunda Community-based Organization (CBO), a farmer co-op, after meeting to discuss barriers to and opportunities for sustainable soil management in Vihiga, Kenya.
  1. Cholani Weebadde: White Yam Agronomy (Ghana): This is a collaborative research effort with the CSIR-Crops Research Institute in Ghana and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA, Nigeria). The goal is to introduce the pigeon pea-white yam cropping system to smallholder white yam farmers in Ghana to help sustain yam production. The work is funded by the MSU Alliance for African Partnerships (AAP).
  1. Cholani Weebadde: Snap bean and strawberry breeding and genetics (Sri Lanka). Through an MSU collaboration with the snap bean breeder from the Sri Lanka Department of Agriculture and a USDA-ARS (Beltsville), resistant breeding for bean rust disease is being conducted. USDA-ARS shared rust resistant germplasm is being used to develop resistant varieties for Sri Lankan farmers. This work was made possible through establishing a Sandwich PhD degree program at MSU to train scientists at research institutions in developing countries. In addition, through a MSU collaboration with the Jagro Strawberry Industries in Sri Lanka, an adaptive breeding program was initiated in 2015 for strawberries where MSU advanced breeding lines were tested in a tropical environment.

Undergraduate Collaborative Research:

Dr. Cholani Weebadde: In an effort to enhance the research capacities of undergraduate students in developing countries, collaborative research projects were initiated with the Faculty of Science, University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka under an existing MoU with MSU. This effort resulted in collaborative research publications in reputed peer reviewed journals and students securing post graduate positions overseas, including one at MSU.

USAID SIIL project: Alison Nord evaluating sustainable soil management in Tanzania
USAID SIIL Project: MSU PhD student Alison Nord (center) in the field evaluating sustainable soil management in Tanzania with local scientists.

Publications and Sharing of Knowledge and Experiences with Global Community (selected publications are listed below:

  1. Tu, X., P. Ewing, D. TerAvest, S.S. Snapp. Hyper-local soil management in Malawi:

Handheld reflectometer informed by Bayesian analysis of local and remote data, in press.

  1. Nord, A. and S.S. Snapp. Documentation of farmer perceptions and site-specific properties to improve soil management on smallholder farms. Land Degradation and Development, https://doi.org/10.1002/ldr.3582
  2. Nord, A., N. Miller, W. Mariki, L.E. Drinkwater, and S.S. Snapp. 2020 Investigating the diverse potential of a multi-purpose legume, Lablab purpureus (L.) Sweet, for smallholder production in East Africa. PlosONE,Special Collection on Future Crops. 15(1). 0227739.
  3. Mungai, L., J.P. Messina, and S. S. Snapp. 2020. Spatial pattern of agricultural productivity trends in Malawi. Sustainability
  4. Isaacs K, Weltzien E, Diallo C, Sidibe M, Diallo B, Rattunde F. 2017 Farmer engagement in culinary testing and grain quality evaluations provides crucial information for sorghum breeding strategies in Mali. In: Tufan HA et al. (eds.). State of the Knowledge for Gender-Responsive Breeding: Case Studies for Practitioners. CGIAR Gender and Breeding Initiative Working Document. International Potato Center (CIP), Lima.
  5. Snapp, S.S., J. DeDecker and A. Davis. 2019. Farmer participatory research on sustainable intensification: lessons from Michigan and Malawi. Agronomy Journal, 111:2681-2691.
  6. Wang, H., S. Snapp, M. Fisher, and F. Viens. 2019. A Bayesian analysis of longitudinal farm surveys in Central Malawi reveals yield determinants and site-specific management strategies. PloS one 14, 8: e0219296.
  7. Ravet, Karl, Eric L. Patterson, Hansjörg Krähmer, Kateřina Hamouzová, Longjiang Fan, Marie Jasieniuk, Amy Lawton‐Rauh et al. "The power and potential of genomics in weed biology and management." Pest management science74, no. 10 (2018): 2216-2225.

For More Information, please contact:

Dr. Brian Horgan
Professor and Chairperson
Department of Plant Soil and Microbial Sciences
Email: horganb@msu.edu
Website: www.canr.msu.edu/psm/

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