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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Hot Research Topics 2014

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A collection of articles from Agricultural Research magazine featuring research conducted at the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.
Agricultural Research is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's science magazine, published monthly by the Agricultural Research Service and also available electronically.

Agricultural Research Service Information Staff's Image Gallery - a complimentary source of high quality digital photographs

Animal Heath

Newly Hatched Chicks , photo by Stephen Ausmus Chickens Open Wide for Gelatin Bead Vaccine

Making sure all newborn chicks are vaccinated right out of the hatchery isn’t always easy. Some birds may be missed by standard poultry vaccination methods and, consequently, left with little defense against intestinal diseases. Developed by scientists at the Agricultural Research Service, a new vaccine delivery system to prevent diseases like coccidiosis may be more appetizing to birds than traditional methods.

Coccidiosis, a common and costly poultry disease, is caused by tiny, single-celled parasites. These parasites, which belong to the genus Eimeria, live and multiply in the intestinal tract and cause tissue damage that hinders the bird’s ability to digest feed and absorb nutrients. Infected birds shed oocysts—the egglike stage of the parasite—in their feces, and the oocysts transform into infectious forms once in litter, soil, feed, or water. As chickens peck around in the litter, they can ingest the oocysts and become infected. The results are slower weight gain and growth and sometimes death..
Agricultural Research magazine, January 2014 Complete Article

Crop Diversity

Cranberry Plant, photo by Keith Weller National Inventory Takes Stock of Crops’ Wild Relatives

An estimated one of every five plant species worldwide is endangered by habitat loss, climate change, invasive species, and other threats. In the United States alone, roughly 30 percent of native plant species are similarly threatened, and a surprising number may be closely related to crop plants we use every day. Losing these and other crop wild relatives (CWR) could be detrimental to agriculture both domestically and abroad, researchers say. That’s because these wild relatives provide critical sources of genetic diversity that can be tapped for an array of economically important traits—such as resistance to emerging pests and diseases, increased yield, and better drought tolerance or adaptability.

Over the past few years, Agricultural Research Service and collaborating scientists have worked to create a first-of-its-kind inventory for U.S. wild and weedy crop relatives that prioritizes the species by their importance to breeding new, improved varieties. In doing this, the researchers looked at how closely related the wild species are to crops—especially those grown for food—which determines the ease or difficulty in transferring desirable traits to their cultivated cousins. Another consideration was their availability in gene banks or protected habitat areas, explains ARS plant geneticist Stephanie Greene.
Agricultural Research magazine, January 2014 Complete Article

Climate Change

Soil-Plant-Atmosphere Research Chamber, photo by Stephen Ausmus Potatoes Show Promise for Meeting Climate Change Challenges

New research shows that potatoes—often cultivated as a rainfed crop with little or no irrigation—are still the go-to tuber when times get tough.

Agricultural Research Service agricultural engineer David Fleisher and colleagues wanted to measure how potato plants would respond to elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and the increasingly erratic rainfall patterns expected to result from global climate change. So the team conducted two outdoor-chamber studies to evaluate effects of short-term drought cycles at current and elevated CO2 levels. Fleisher and his research partners—plant physiologist Richard Sicher, soil scientist Dennis Timlin, research leader V.R. Reddy, and research associate Jinyoung Barnaby—all work at the ARS Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

The studies were conducted using soil-plant-atmosphere research chambers that provided precise control over CO2 levels, air temperature, irrigation, and humidity. The chambers contained sensors that monitored air, soil, and canopy temperatures; relative humidity; and sunlight above and below the canopy.
Agricultural Research magazine, February 2014 Complete Article


 SoySNP50K iSelect SNP beadchip, photo by Peggy Greb New Tool for Improving Soybeans

For all that was gained when soybeans were domesticated thousands of years ago, scientists believe that something was lost: valuable genes left out of today’s cultivated varieties that could make them more productive and better able to resist the pests and diseases that are constant threats. Perry Cregan, Qijian Song, and Charles Quigley, who are with the Agricultural Research Service’s Soybean Genomics Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, have developed a tool to help in the search for regions of the soybean genome where those useful genes could still be found.

The tool is a glass chip with a difficult name: the SoySNP50K iSelect SNP BeadChip. It’s about 3 inches long and has an etched surface that holds thousands of DNA markers, which can be deciphered by computers and used by scientists to characterize the genomes of large numbers of soybean plants.

If researchers at ARS and elsewhere scan enough soybean plants, they should be able to discover previously unknown genes associated with important characteristics. The chip will speed up those searches. Genetic information that once took days or weeks to collect can be gathered in about 20 minutes, Quigley says.

Agricultural Research magazine, February 2014 Complete Article

Plant Pathogens

Tomato Leaves, photo by Peggy Greb Aspirin-Like Compound Primes Plant Defense Against Pathogens

Willow trees are well-known sources of salicylic acid, and for thousands of years, humans have extracted the compound from the tree’s bark to alleviate minor pain, fever, and inflammation.

Now, salicylic acid may also offer relief to crop plants by priming their defenses against a microbial menace known as “potato purple top phytoplasma.” Outbreaks of the cell-wall-less bacterium in the fertile Columbia Basin region of the Pacific Northwest in 2002 and subsequent years inflicted severe yield and quality losses on potato crops. The Agricultural Research Service identified an insect accomplice—the beet leafhopper, which transmits the phytoplasma to plants while feeding.

Carefully timed insecticide applications can deter such feeding. But once infected, a plant cannot be cured. Now, a promising lead has emerged. An ARS-University of Maryland team has found evidence that pretreating tomato plants, a relative of potato, with salicylic acid can prevent phytoplasma infections or at least diminish their severity.

Agricultural Research magazine, February 2014 Complete Article


Chemist Pei Chen prepares extracts, photo by Peggy Greb Dietary Products

Some are Underresearched, Overmarketed - While surfing the Web, you may have seen ads promising “one tip to a flat belly.” After clicking on the ad, you jump to a website where official-looking major-news-outlet logos appear. After reading more details about the advertised product, if you clicked “purchase,” you took a step closer to achieving the product promoter’s goals.

There are several products, such as African mango supplements, that appear at the end of these “one tip” ads. But the real tip is accurate consumer information about the products.

Focusing on Facts - In 2013, ARS nutritionists Seema Bhagwat, David Haytowitz, and Joanne Holden (retired) prepared and launched the USDA-ARS Database for the Flavonoid Content of Selected Foods: Release 3.1. The amount of flavonoids in foods is of interest because of their purported beneficial health effects.

Agricultural Research magazine, March 2014 Complete Article

Systematics & Collections

botanist John Wiersema, photo by Stephen Ausmus New Reference Provides Uses and Origins of Economically Important Plants

At 1,336 pages, “World Economic Plants: A Standard Reference” is more for professionals and scientists than the casual reader. The book,compiled by an Agricultural Research Service botanist and a University of Texas taxonomist, could also be considered a testament to the diversity of our plant life.

Authors John Wiersema and Blanca León link the list of scientific names with the geographic origins, uses, and relationships of 12,235 plants. They also provide over 50,000 common names for those plants in 27 languages, among them Arabic, Chinese, and Russian. Plants often have different names and uses in different countries, says Wiersema, who is with the ARS National Germplasm Resources Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

The book, published by CRC Press, focuses on plants that are “directly or indirectly important to international [or interstate] commerce ... or have recognized potential for widespread economic usage,” according to the text. Plants used for food, fiber, timber, medicines, ornamental purposes, crop breeding, and many other uses are included, along with those having negative impacts, such as invasive weeds and poisonous plants.

Agricultural Research magazine, March 2014 Complete Article

Last Modified: 4/9/2014
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