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ARS Sunflower Unit Reorganized

Tuesday, August 30, 2011
filed under: Research and Development

The USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Sunflower Research Unit located at the Red River Valley Agricultural Research Center (RRVARC) in Fargo, N.D., has been reorganized into the Sunflower and Plant Biology Research Unit. The new unit will consist of 10 full-time research scientists and one support scientist. There are an additional 11 technicians and support staff in the unit, as well as a host of post-doctoral scientists.

The reorganization was prompted by the recent retirement of Dr. Brady Vick, the Sunflower Unit’s research leader and biochemist. USDA officials, with input from industry and growers, decided to redirect resources devoted to the biochemist position to elsewhere within the new research unit. “Dr. Vick provided many great years of outstanding service to the sunflower industry, science and the USDA,” states RRVARC Director Dr. Bill Kemp.

The other ARS group being merged into this new unit, the former Weed Biology Research Unit, conducts research on the fundamental biology of weeds such as Canada thistle and leafy spurge. They focus on seed dormancy and vegetative reproduction using physiological, molecular and genomic approaches. The four-person research team consists of two plant physiologists, a molecular geneticist and a biochemist.

Research leader for the new USDA-ARS Sunflower and Plant Biology Research Unit is Dr. Mike Foley. Foley is a plant physiologist with a weed science background. He was raised on a farm in Minnesota and earned degrees from the University of Minnesota and the University of Illinois. He has research experience at Montana State University, the University of Oklahoma and Purdue University. He has a great deal of research experience in seed dormancy.

The merger provides real efficiencies, says Kemp. “Each of the existing sunflower scientists will have increased research budgets to work with,” he remarks.

National Sunflower Association President Tom Young of Onida, S.D., is excited about the merger. “The sunflower industry has identified the need for a plant physiologist position over the last several years. We have issues with dormancy and uneven emergence, as well as pollination. These are all areas where plant physiologists can provide expertise,” Young observes. Kemp echoes Young’s support, saying that each individual scientist will maintain his or her existing area of work over the next several years. “But there are opportunities where expertise can be shared right now, and that is exciting,” Kemp remarks.

According to Young, the NSA has also identified the need for a bioinformaticist. “This position is needed to sort out the great amount of data that is now coming into the breeding community via molecular markers and expanded field data,” he states.

Foley says that bioinformatics is a new field that is getting a great deal of attention within USDA-ARS. “It is an important tool for breeders, who are amassing huge volumes of data from both field and gene evaluation of hundreds of plants, as well as genomic researchers with their massive gene expression datasets,” he explains. Kemp says there is a significant need for this expertise in a number of units at the Fargo RRVARC. “We will be looking closely at this need, and mergers like this one give us some flexibility in moving quickly,” the center’s director states.

— Larry Kleingartner
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