MSU to lead $6.5 million research on disease resistance in cucurbits

A national team of 20 scientists led by MSU Horticulture Professor Rebecca Grumet has been awarded $6.5 million grant to accelerate the development of disease-resistant cucurbit crops through leveraging applied genomics.


East Lansing, MICH. – A national team of 20 scientists led by Michigan State University (MSU) Horticulture Professor and AgBioResearch scientist Rebecca Grumet has been awarded $6.5 million grant to accelerate the development of disease-resistant cucurbit crops through leveraging applied genomics.

The researchers will create a collaborative, national initiative to develop breeder-friendly genomic tools to help with the production of watermelon, melon, cucumber and squash. The grant was issued today by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

Using genomics is the most cost effective as well as the most environmentally-favorable solution to the problems of disease resistance since it allows growers to apply less fungicide. Cucurbit producers and processors consistently identify diseases as a primary constraint, causing severe reductions in yield, quality and profitability.

Grumet said that rapid advances in genomic technology and recent genome sequencing of the four cucurbit species make them ideally poised for genomics-assisted breeding.

“With the advent of next generation DNA sequencing technologies, we can approach problems in ways that were not possible before and can use those methods to identify genetic regions within the crop that are associated with disease resistance,” said Grumet. “The primary limitation for growers of cucurbit crops is losses due to disease, especially fungal and viral. And in some cases, these can completely wipe out a crop.”

The project will integrate research and extension endeavors to:

  • Develop sustainable genomic and bioinformatics web-based platforms for genotyping by sequencing, sequence data processing and analysis, breeding data information management, and genome-wide association studies
  • Map resistance locations and develop markers for introgression of resistances to key cucurbit diseases
  • Develop models to define, parameterize, simulate and analyze costs of cucurbit production and disease control
  • Develop a centralized cucurbit disease website providing readily accessible information in English and Spanish for disease diagnosis and control.

Other institutions involved in the research include: Boyce Thompson Institute; USDA-ARS, Charleston, S.C.; Cornell University; USDA-ARS Salinas, CA.; Texas A&M University; North Carolina State University; USDA-ARS, University of Georgia, University of Puerto Rico, University of Wisconsin and West Virginia State University.

The project will facilitate connections between genomicists, breeders, pathologists and economists, providing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) training for undergraduate, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.

The Cucurbitaceae family includes many high-value, nutritious crops, consumed as vegetables and fruits in the American diet. U.S. production of watermelons, melons, cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins contributes an average of $1.65 billion farm gate value per year (USDA 2009-2013).

In the past five years, the team has collectively received nearly $2 million from commodity groups and seed companies to address disease-related problems.

In addition to Grumet’s research, NIFA also announced today that MSU Horticulture Associate Professor Ryan Warner will receive $27,000 to develop an interdisciplinary research and extension program to promote stevia production in the U.S. Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the plant species -- Stevia rebaudiana

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