Plant Ag at Michigan State University


June 24, 2014

Last week, sixteen members of the department of Plant Agriculture traveled to Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Michigan, for the 6th annual Great Lakes Plant Breeding Initiative (GLPBI) held from June 16th to 18th, 2014.

Students at Michigan State University

University of Guelph Plant Agriculture students, staff and faculty visiting plant breeding programs at Michigan State University June 16 to 18, 2014. Photo credit: Istvan Rajcan

The GLPBI was started in 2008 as a joint venture between the University of Guelph and Cornell University with the intent to share ideas, programs and strategies in plant breeding between faculty and graduate students from each university. Thanks largely to the success of its first year, the GLPBI has gone on to invite plant breeding researchers from Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University to participate in the annual three-day meeting between the guests and hosts.

This year, MSU graciously welcomed delegates from Ohio State University and the University of Guelph to tour its stately campus, modern research facilities and sprawling farmlands, and to enjoy talks from world class field crop and horticultural plant breeders. From our department, faculty members Dr. Istvan Rajcan, Dr. Alireza Navabi, Dr. Lewis Lukens and Dr. Milad Eskandari, accompanied research technician Melinda Drummond and Plant Breeding & Genetics graduate students Abdulaziz Aldeghaim, Alison Cooke, Andrew Holtrop, Beatrice Amyotte, Emily Moeller, Fawn Turner, Jennifer Wilker, Maryam Vazin, Robert Bruce, Torin Boyle and Xinyu Chen.  

Arriving in East Lansing (population = 48 000) on Monday afternoon, we were met with the visual proof that MSU is indeed an enormous school (student population = 49 000). Between its main campus, off-site residences, sport complexes and farms, MSU more than half of the town’s 36 km2 area. Though there are acres upon acres of beautifully manicured greens and ornamental test gardens accentuating over a hundred classic American and modernist academic buildings on the campus proper, most of MSU’s land is dedicated to agricultural research. As guests of the Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology program, we were privileged to visit several of these agriculture research lands, from soybean aphid nurseries, to wheat breeding test plots, to sugar beet plantations, over the course of our visit.

Arial view of MSU and greenhouses

MSU plant research facilities including Molecular Plant Science, Plant and Soil Sciences, and Plant Biology Laboratories buildings, and research greenhouses. Photo credit: Gordon Shelter 2009

Our reception on Monday evening was in the Molecular Plant Science Building, a brand new integrated plant research facility linking the Plant and Soil Sciences Building with the Plant Biology Laboratories, which served as the base camp for all GLPBI talks and tours. Here, we were greeted by wheat breeder Dr. Eric Olson who introduced his committee of faculty and student organizers for the event, and then invited us to explore the beautiful MSU campus and East Lansing downtown.

The following morning, we traveled to the Crop Science Research and Teaching Farm where Dr. Dechun Wang presented his soybean breeding program and demonstrated a two-pronged approach to testing for aphid resistance in advanced breeding lines. Dr. Mitch McGrath then led our convoy down a winding dirt road to his sugar beet plots, where he discussed the unique objectives and considerations of breeding a biennial, indeterminate flowering and hybrid industrial field crop.

Students in the fieldlearning about soybean and sugar beet research

Dr, Dechun Wang (left) and Dr. Mitch McGrath (right) present their soybean and sugar beet research programs. Photo credit: Istvan Rajcan

We then returned to the main campus in order to enjoy lectures from Dr. Amy Iezonni who described her sour cherry breeding program in context of the RosBREED national Rosaceae molecular breeding collaboration, and from Dr. Cornelius Barry who presented his recent research on the evolution of unique secondary biosynthetic pathways in deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

Tuesday afternoon brought us to Dr. Eric Olson’s wheat breeding program on the Mason Farm, where we were shown “10 years in twenty minutes” - an allusion to the approximately 10 generations required for wheat to advance from first cross to variety registration. Here, Dr. Olson discussed his evaluation methods from second generation (F2) single-family rows through advanced replicated yield trials, and proudly demonstrated his custom-manufactured single plot harvester which had just arrived from Japan.

Dr. Eric Olsen presents his wheat breeding program

Dr. Eric Olson presents his spring and winter wheat breeding program to GLPBI students and faculty. Photo credit: Istvan Rajcan

Tuesday’s schedule concluded with research talks by dry bean breeder Dr. James Kelly and genomics scientist Dr. Ning Jiang. Dr. Kelly spoke of developing genetic resources for diverse bean market classes with increased yields and grower friendliness, while Dr. Jiang changed gears completely and presented her current research on transposable element-driven evolution in plants. To unwind after a full day of research talks and tours, the MSU delegation took us all out that evening to enjoy dinner at a wonderful local eatery across from Michigan’s State Capitol building in Lansing.

The next day, we were invited back to the Plant Science research facilities for four faculty presentations on potato, sequencing, maize, and cucumber. First, Dr. David Douches presented his impressive potato breeding program and relinquished the floor briefly to his student Nathan Butler who discussed his research on genome editing technology as an advancement over standard plant transformation methods. Dr. Nick Beckloff offered us a tour of the MSU genomics core which operates several different sequencing instruments, from traditional Sanger sequencers to high-throughput Next-Generation sequencers, and also performs DNA expression analysis. Dr. Robin Buell then discussed the role of gene presence/absence variation in maize diversity, and presented a transcriptome-based approach to characterizing such diversity on a genomic level. Finally, Dr. Rebecca Grumet spoke to us about her pickling cucumber breeding program (Michigan produces almost 40% of the pickling cucumbers in the US!), and invited us to tour both her research lab and greenhouse where she studies age-related resistance to the devastating Phytophtora capcisi pathogen in cucumber and melon fruit.

students and faculty group photo

Students and faculty from MSU, Ohio State University, and the University of Guelph plant breeding programs gather on the last day of the 2014 Great Lakes Plant Breeding Initiative visit to MSU.

Our 6th  annual Great Lakes Plant Breeding Initiative visit to MSU concluded in the Plant and Soil Science Building courtyard where all student, staff and faculty participants from our three universities congregated to pose for one final photo and say goodbye – or so we thought! Before we left, Dr. Dechun Wang invited us all to join him for one last meal together, and we once again had the opportunity to share research goals, discuss idea, and lay the foundation for great partnerships with top notch plant breeding students and scientists from our Great Lakes community.

On behalf of all of us Plant Breeding & Genetics student participants, I would like to express sincere gratitude for the opportunity to take part in this in this event, for the funding granted to us by our faculty advisors, Dr. Rajcan for organizing the trip and Drs. Lukens, Navabi and Eskandari for their mentorship and guidance.  But most of all, I would like to thank our hosts Drs. Olson, Wang and colleagues, as well as all of the wonderful students who made us feel so welcome and treated us to an excellent, informative visit of MSU’s plant breeding research.

Thank you, and until next year!

Beatrice Amyotte