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Research Highlights
Multi-Faceted Plant Pathology Project Reflects Collaborative Intention of NCSRP

Soybean plant with sudden death syndrome foliar symptoms. Photo: Daren Mueller

By Carol Brown

What happens when you gather a group of plant pathology researchers together? In this particular case, the outcome is a large, multi-state soybean research project. 

The North Central Soybean Research Program recently funded a project that involves nine states and 12 investigators. The project is complicated in the sense that there are many moving parts and people involved, but the overall goal is simple: improving the management of soybean diseases. 

University of Wisconsin-Madison plant pathologist Damon Smith is the lead principal investigator for the project.

“There had been several smaller pathology-related projects funded by NCSRP. We coordinated our efforts and consolidated what would traditionally have been multiple projects,” Smith explains. “The aim here is to support pathology-related work under one umbrella.”

The project encompasses several objectives with experts across the Midwest focusing on soybean diseases including white mold, frogeye leaf spot, Diaporthe diseases, sudden death syndrome, Phytophthora and Pythium root rot. The researchers are looking at different aspects of these diseases such as seed treatments, foliar fungicide efficacy, prediction tools and more. 

“This group has been really good about collaboration over the years, so we affixed the collaborative model to this project and then broke it down by need for each state,” Smith says. “Most of the states are participating in nearly all of the objectives, and there is deeper focus in some states on certain projects because they are more important for their state.”

Part of the collaboration effort includes expanding and sharing new and historical data to fill in some of the gaps that individual researchers may have in their body of work. 

“With a multi-state collaborative project like this, we can build datasets much faster than just myself running a trial year after year,” remarks Smith. “It may take me 10 years to generate the type of data that we generated in just one year across this regional project.”

Iowa State University plant pathologist Daren Mueller is a co-principal investigator on the project. He and Michigan State University associate professor Martin Chilvers serve unofficially as Smith’s co-leaders. Together, these three oversee the project’s four main objectives: efficacy trials for disease control products, developing disease prediction tools, understanding the biology and epidemiology of emerging diseases, and developing extension tools for communication with farmers. Each objective includes several sub-objectives to drill down to specifics.

Sub-Objective: Sudden Death Syndrome Seed Treatments

Mueller has been conducting research on sudden death syndrome for nearly a decade through various projects including this one. 

“I’m working with Dr. Chilvers to find if we can predict what fields will have higher amounts of SDS,” explains Mueller. “Marty is looking at the molecular side, and I’m exploring how effective SDS management practices will be in fields with different risk levels.”

Other variables in a field may increase the risk of SDS such as the presence of soybean cyst nematode, soil properties and nutrient levels. Mueller is working with one of his graduate students to explore how these factors affect SDS. He also helps Rodrigo Onofre, a Kansas State University assistant professor, with a study of soybean populations with a high rate of SDS, seed treatment efficacy and a farmer’s return on that investment. Onofre oversees the data collection and analysis; Mueller is studying additional locations for Onofre’s team and will help review the work. 

Sub-Objective: Improving Seed Quality and Fungicide Resistance in Soybean Pathogens

North Dakota State University plant pathologist Febina Mathew is an expert on Diaporthe diseases. A former South Dakotan, her research focuses on soybean seed, seedling and stem pathogens. For this project, Mathew is looking at soybean seed decay as well as fungicide efficacy and resistance.

“With soybean seed decay, it is usually a group of organisms causing the disease, and among the organisms, Diaporthe/Phomopsis species are predominant,” Mathew says. “Typically, we receive seed samples from pathologists and ag professionals from multiple states toward the end of the growing season to identify the exact organism causing the disease. We have isolated organisms including Diaporthe/Phomopsis from both symptomatic (discolored) and asymptomatic (healthy) seeds. This information is important as we continue to develop soybean varieties with disease resistance.”

Soybean seeds with symptoms and signs of Diaporthe seed decay (right) compared to healthy soybean seeds (left). Photo: Kristina Petrović, Crop Protection Network

Mathew says that even though people have been researching the Diaporthe/Phomopsis complex of fungal species since the 1940s, how these fungi function together in the field has remained unclear. Diaporthe andPhomopsis species cause a variety of diseases in soybeans, including pod and stem blight, seed decay, and stem canker. 

Over the last few years, she and her team identified 11 different organisms that are part of the Diaporthe complex, three of which have not been previously reported anywhere in the world. In 2022, they identified another fungus from the Diaporthe family that has not been reported before on soybeans in the United States, bringing the total known number to 12 Diaporthe/Phomopsis species capable of causing seed decay.

“One part of my research with this project is looking at fungicide efficacy and resistance against these pathogens,” Mathew says. “There are limited chemistries available for soybean fungicides and when none of them work, we have to look for other products and step up the genetics. We don’t have data on how the chemistry works against these organisms for the products currently labeled for soybean. We need to look further at this and develop recommendations accordingly for farmers to manage this disease.”

Mathew is also looking at fungicide application timing. Her team, along with Smith and his group, hope to create a disease forecasting model for the Diaporthe diseases, so farmers will know better when to spray. 

Objective: Communicating with Farmers

A main objective of this project is communicating research results to farmers and ag professionals, and each of the co-investigators is responsible for contributing. For example, one of the outcomes is to develop a presentation for researchers and extension specialists to use across the region at winter meetings and field days. The slides will be formatted in interchangeable sections to customize presentations depending on the presenter and requested information. 

The slides and other communication outputs will be continually developed as the project goes along. Smith and the project leaders plan to continue to turn their collaborative work into information for farmers and post updates on the Crop Protection Network and other websites as the project continues.

Collaboration and Leveraging are Essential

Collaboration is evident as researchers share data and project findings with one another to help shed light on answers — something that was rare in the past.

“This pathology group is extremely collaborative, and it goes beyond NCSRP. I look at our work with NCSRP as a subset of the larger picture,” Smith comments. “Some people think our research community works and stays within our own silos, but this new generation of pathologists is different. It’s a good thing, as there are fewer of us across the country these days. Combining efforts is important as we can leverage data faster and more efficiently.”

Mathew, Mueller, Smith and the others involved have expanded work beyond their state and even the Midwest by leveraging this NCSRP project. The researchers recently received word of several newly funded USB projects that were leveraged with this grant. 

And the leveraging works both ways. Mueller says the group expanded research to multiple states for frogeye leaf spot and Pythium — parts of these projects were originally funded through the Iowa Soybean Association. Smith also has a larger Phytophthora study within this project that was originally funded through the Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board. All of this reflects on the heart of what NCSRP is about and why the regional group was created. 

“It is important for us researchers to complement each other. As a result of the soybean checkoff, we have been able to generate a lot of helpful information for farmers,” Mathew comments.

The researchers are grateful for the farmers, state soybean boards, NCSRP and USB for enabling them to conduct this important work. 

“We hope farmers know how thankful we are for their support,” Mueller says. “Sometimes what we do is a little crazy, and knowing they have patience and trust us to get things done — it means a lot.”

Investigators involved in the project “Multi-Dimensional Approaches for Improved Productivity, Sustainability and Management of Major Soybean Diseases in the North Central US”:

  • Damon Smith, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Daren Mueller, Iowa State University
  • Martin Chilvers, Michigan State University
  • Rodrigo Borba Onofre, Kansas State University
  • Christopher Little, Kansas State University
  • Febina Mathew, North Dakota State University
  • Mitchell Roth, Ohio State University
  • Horacio Lopez-Nicora, Ohio State University 
  • Darcy Telenko, Purdue University
  • Dean Malvick, University of Minnesota
  • Ahmad M. Fakhoury, Southern Illinois University
  • Jason P. Bond, Southern Illinois University
  • Dylan Mangel, University of Nebraska

Published: Dec 19, 2022

This project was funded by the soybean checkoff. To find research related to this research highlight or to see other checkoff research projects, please visit the National Soybean Checkoff Research Database.