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Pustovoit Award Goes to Two USDA Scientists

Sunday, April 1, 2012
filed under: Marketing/Risk Management

Two scientists with the USDA-ARS Sunflower and Plant Biology Research Unit at Fargo, N.D., received the International Sunflower Association’s highest award on February 29. Cytogeneticist C.C. Jan and research botanist Gerald Seiler were honored with the V.S. Pustovoit Award during the 18th International Sunflower Conference held in Mar del Plata, Argentina.

Three others also received the Pustovoit Award in Mar del Plata: Juan Dominguiz of Spain, Mihail Christov of Bulgaria and Andre Pouzet of France.

The Pustovoit Award, named after renowned Russian sunflower breeder V.S. Pustovoit, is conferred upon individuals who have made major contributions to the scientific and/or technological advancement of the global sunflower industry. This is the first time two individuals from the same country (much less the same research unit) have been honored in the same year. Prior to 2012, only 29 scientists had received a Pustovoit since its inception in 1980. Among them were five Americans (Murray Kinman, Charles Heiser, Gerhardt Fick, Florin Stoenescu and Jerry Miller) and two Canadians (Eric Putt and Waldemar Sackston).

Jan received his B.S. degree in Taiwan and his M.S. in agronomy and Ph.D. in genetics from the University of California-Davis. He began working with the USDA-ARS Davis group in 1981 in the newly created position of sunflower cytogeneticist. The Davis sunflower unit was closed in 1984, at which time Jan relocated to Fargo.

Jan has worked extensively to develop systems by which desirable traits from wild sunflower species can be transferred into cultivated lines. It’s a very challenging process, complicated by the extreme diversity of the Helianthus (sunflower) genus. There are 52 different sunflower species — 14 annual and 38 perennial. Some are diploids, some are tetraploids, and others are hexaploids. Getting them to cross with each other is an often-daunting proposition requiring novel, complex approaches.

Among Jan’s current major objectives are interspecific gene transfer and the characterization and mapping of genes for disease resistance and agronomic traits. He is very involved in the effort to develop doubled-haploid sunflower and in gene transfer for Sclerotinia resistance.

Seiler, a Wells County, N.D., native, earned B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in botany from North Dakota State University. He made his first wild sunflower species collection trip while a graduate student at NDSU in the early 1970s. Several years later, in 1980, he joined the USDA-ARS Sunflower Research Unit at Bushland, Texas, as a research botanist, working on the collection and use of wild sunflower species for improvement of the cultivated crop. When the Bushland sunflower program closed in 1988, Seiler moved back to North Dakota and joined the ARS Fargo unit.

An internationally recognized authority on wild sunflower species, Seiler was instrumental in developing the wild sunflower germplasm collection for the USDA-ARS National Plant Germplasm System. During the past 35 years, he has participated in 25 explorations for wild sunflower species in the United States, Canada, Argentina and Australia. His explorations have contributed about 1,500 accessions to the collection. Seiler has authored more than 300 scientific publications, including 13 book chapters and co-authorship of two books: Sunflower Species of the United States and Genetics, Genomics, and Breeding of Sunflower.

During his career, Seiler has developed and released 60 interspecific sunflower germplasms derived from 12 annual and five perennial species. As a group, those germplasms have incorporated genes for salt tolerance, resistance to all known races of downy mildew, and resistance genes for all North American races of rust. Overall, the goal of his work has been to increase the genetic diversity of cultivated sunflower through the incorporation of useful traits from the wilds — be it disease resistance, insect tolerance, drought tolerance or a broad range of other characteristics.

Both Jan and Seiler express appreciation for the recognition of their contributions to sunflower science and to the industry in general. “But I consider [the Pustovoit] a ‘group award,’ because we don’t do anything alone,” Seiler stresses. “We have stakeholders and partners who all work together.” Among those partners, Jan and Seiler note, are their colleagues within the ARS sunflower group, including plant pathologist Tom Gulya, geneticist Brent Hulke, entomologist Jarrad Prasifka and molecular geneticist Lili Qi, to name a few.

“We do our job as best we can, and we enjoy our work,” Jan says. “But the recognition [is gratifying]. It’s a confirmation of what we have accomplished.”

The small group of people who work in basic research involving wild sunflower species often seem quite removed from the final product — i.e., better hybrids for the farmer — Seiler and Jan affirm. “It’s like making sausage,” Seiler illustrates with a nonscientific analogy. “You’re stuffing in the ingredients at one end, but the sausage only comes out at the other — and that’s where the commercial breeder is.” But those ingredients at the front end are critical to the quality of the finished product, he points out.

“We always view this (the ARS work) as a ‘basic’ program where we do the gene discovery and put it into some kind of cultivated background,” he continues. “The commercial breeders take the released material and put it into their own best material. They’re interested in a certain trait.

“But unfortunately, there are a lot of other traits that come along with that desired trait — traits that we call ‘excessive baggage.’ This is where the technology going forward (e.g., molecular markers) will be more efficient. We’ll spend less time trying to get rid of the traits we don’t want — and focus more on what we do want.”

“We are providing the raw material for the commercial breeders,” Jan summarizes. “They can refine it, put it into their own background and develop a product.” That final product — an improved sunflower hybrid — is what ultimately benefits the farmer and the overall sunflower industry.

— Don Lilleboe
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