On the Path to Protecting Grain Production

U of I plant pathology student tackles wheat fungal disease

Published online: Sep 17, 2021 Articles, Education And Arts, Lifestyle Brian Walker
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Rachel Patterson seemed destined to become a scientist at a young age.

“My siblings and I were given gifts such as rock polishers, human anatomy books, encyclopedias of prehistoric creatures and test tube kits,” said Patterson, who is pursuing a master’s degree in plant pathology at the University of Idaho, Idaho Falls, and expects to graduate in December.

“I even had a science-themed birthday party, making my friends and family shuffle through lab stations with different experiments my mother and I pulled from library books,” she said.

Her love for plants has translated into being a graduate research assistant under Department of Plant Sciences Head, Juliet Marshall. The position is based in Idaho Falls and the research plants are at the Aberdeen Research and Extension Center. The hope is to gather data that lead to wheat varieties resistant to the fungal disease common bunt, or “stinking smut.”

“We hope to contribute to the consistent protection of grain production in Idaho and globally,” Patterson said. 

With many diseases, symptoms are visible early in the infection. With common bunt, however, the fungus attacks the seedling before it emerges from the soil. It grows in the plant throughout its life cycle, but there are few symptoms until the plant has matured. At that point, instead of wheat kernels neatly arranged in a head, the wheat seeds are replaced with balls of black, stinking spores called “bunt balls.”

Patterson’s team will be evaluating how the fungus did or did not grow in the plants and the concentration of fungal DNA in seedling leaves to see if that’s a good measure of final disease loss. 

“We can combat diseases more effectively when we fully understand their life cycle,” said Patterson, whose work is funded by the Idaho Wheat Commission and the University of Idaho College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “If we can show that the fungus grows in the leaves of susceptible plants but not resistant plants, then we may have discovered a useful tool for breeders. If we find the fungi in resistant plants, we will have contributed to a change in our understanding of the disease suggesting that other tools based on genetics may be more effective.”

Marshall said Patterson was diligent about scouring published work before the research project. “Rachel was extremely thorough in planning her experiments, more so than any master’s student I have had,” Marshall said. “We have a team here of experienced researchers who can help her in any aspect of her experimental protocol, and she has been resourceful in seeking answers to questions about appropriate protocols.”

Patterson said the industry needs resistant wheat varieties. Resistance breeding for common bunt is not as prioritized as breeding efforts for other diseases.

“We’ve been planting really susceptible varieties in Idaho for a long time, and, while we protect them with seed treatments, plants that grow from leftover seeds in the field after harvest are left unprotected,” she said. “High levels of infection in those unprotected plants can result in a buildup of the fungi in the soil.”

Patterson said as economic downturns occur and expensive seed treatments are less available to producers, resistant varieties will provide a more affordable and durable alternative. 

“As organic production becomes more prominent, resistant varieties become the most effective protection,” she said.

Patterson, who grew up in Gaithersburg, Md., said she chose U of I after earning her bachelor’s degree in plant science from the University of Maryland because of Marshall’s reputation.

“It was important to me that I be guided by someone both respected in the field and truly interested in the development of their students,” Patterson said. “She was well-loved by her former students and is a keystone of her department.”

Patterson’s love of nature is also evident in her favorite hobby of watercolor painting. The paintings include unusual strawberries, cats playing on the moon and mushrooms encircled by oak leaves. 

Patterson sees her wheat research as part of the large puzzle to help keep the world fed. 

“Everything I learn becomes part of something bigger, and as I put pieces together, I contribute to an international effort to protect the wheat crop,” she said. “Feeding everyone is going to be one of the biggest challenges of our generation.”


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