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Help Wanted: Molecular Geneticist

Friday, January 1, 1999
filed under: Disease

(Association Seeking Congressional Appropriation for Funding of New USDA Position in Effort to Spur Biotech Work in Sunflower)

As we move into a new century, agriculture is in an era in which even laymen are bandying about terms which a generation ago would have seemed like a foreign language: genetically engineered organisms, recombinant DNA, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), herbicide-resistant varieties, tissue culture, molecular markers and gene cloning, to name a few. All these

terms fall beneath the umbrella of "biotechnology" - the rapidly burgeoning scientific industry that works to introduce totally new traits into existing organisms.

Biotechnology has already impacted mankind in numerous important ways - from the development of genetically engineered pharmaceuticals (e.g., insulin) to the use of an individual's DNA to help solve crimes. A couple prime examples within agriculture, of course, would be Bt and herbicide-resistant crops, which are now planted on tens of millions of

acres and will proliferate further in coming years.

Due to their sheer size, crops like corn and soybeans have received the most biotech attention in terms of both dollars and manpower. But smaller-acreage crops like sunflower also stand to reap large benefits from such work. Indeed, if it is to remain competitive with other crops, researchers believe sunflower must move with the biotech flow.

That's why the National Sunflower Association (NSA) is now promoting the establishment of a new position within the USDA-ARS Sunflower Research Unit in Fargo, N.D. The post would be that of a molecular geneticist - someone who can use molecular biological techniques to

study the sunflower genome and develop "markers" for specific traits. Such information can then be used to assist sunflower plant breeders in locating these traits within breeding materials and eventually incorporating them in commercial sunflower varieties.

Gene mapping is well advanced in some of the larger crops, but it is still at a relatively basic stage in sunflower. Some of the larger commercial sunflower breeding programs have people working in this area; but the information and techniques they develop are, not surprisingly,

of a largely proprietary nature and not widely shared with public researchers or the industry in general. That's why NSA believes a public sunflower-focused molecular geneticist is important to the industry's long-term future.

Dr. Brady Vick, leader of the Fargo ARS unit, emphasizes that a USDA sunflower molecular geneticist would complement, not replace, conventional plant breeders. The information such a person develops will increase the speed and efficiency of the overall breeding process by helping the conventional breeder "zero in" on specifically where - within the sunflower plant's genetic makeup - the desired trait(s) are located. "This is the direction plant breeding is going: the use of DNA markers and molecular biological techniques," Vick explains.

One example would be with Sclerotinia. Scientists have long known that resistance to Sclerotinia is of a multigenic nature and not due to a single gene. However, those searching for resistance to this disease have had to undertake very complex and time-consuming "exploratory

expeditions" in their effort to locate the specific genetic sources of resistance. Having a road map of molecular markers would greatly assist breeders in locating and utilizing those sources of resistance.

Coming at the issue from another direction, it's also possible that "transformation" - the transfer of resistance genes from another plant species (e.g., barley) - could be used to confer resistance to Sclerotinia in sunflower. Again, this is an endeavor where a molecular geneticist could play a vital role.

Disease resistance is not the only area in which this scientist would concentrate. Vick says he or she would work closely with all members of the Fargo sunflower unit to generate advances in additional areas like tolerance/resistance to insects, fatty acid composition of sunflower

oil, drought or salt tolerance - and even lesser-publicized needs such as increasing the vitamin E level in both confection and oilseed sunflower.

The addition of a molecular geneticist to the Fargo sunflower research group has the blessing of USDA-ARS officials. The agency does not have funds for the new position, however, so NSA has embarked upon an effort to gain support for a special congressional appropriation. The

association is contacting the congressional delegations of all sunflower-producing states to explain the importance of this position, with special attention on those congressmen and senators on appropriations committees.

"I think we have a strong argument," says Larry Kleingartner, NSA executive director. "There are a number of issues unique to sunflower that make this position desirable and justifiable."

Kleingartner indicates that should NSA be successful in its funding quest, the monies would not be available until at least fiscal 2000. There'd then be a period of several months while ARS went through the hiring process and actually had a person on-board at the Fargo location. But he, the NSA board and many others within the sunflower sector believe that now is the time to initiate the effort - an effort they believe has huge implications for the long-term viability of the

U.S. sunflower crop. - Don Lilleboe

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