The Wild Search for Sunflower Genetics
To USDA botanist Gerald Seiler, wild sunflowers represent a prospective treasure trove of genes – a potential source of germplasm for improving cultivated sunflower hybrids, such as better oil or pest resistance.
To evaluate wild species for their usefulness means collecting seed from diverse populations that can be found by plant collection field trips to various locations where wild sunflower species might be found – even ‘exotic’ places like an Australian city dump.
Seiler and USDA plant pathologist Tom Gulya spent 17 days in Australia earlier this year with a group of Australian sunflower researchers, in an effort to collect seeds of naturalized wild Helianthus species. This was the first exploration trip outside of North American for Helianthus, and was funded by a competitive grant from the USDA Plant Exploration Office, within the USDA National Plant Germplasm System.
The group explored over 6,000 miles across areas of Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Despite the extreme drought, they found and were able to collect seeds from 37 populations of H. annuus, the common annual sunflower, and H. debilis, the dune sunflower.
Gulya hopes to collaborate more in the future with one of the Australian scientists in the group, plant pathologist Gary Kong with the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, as they jointly investigate the races of sunflower rust evolving on wild sunflowers in Australia and the United States.
After seeds of the Australian sunflowers cleared customs, evaluation by the USDA Sunflower Unit in Fargo began for possible new sources of disease and insect resistance, with special emphasis on Sclerotinia and rust resistance. Seeds from the Australian expedition were also deposited in the USDA North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station’s (Ames, IA) Helianthus germplasm collection.
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