On a hot, muggy day ideal for soybeans to grow, I found myself in one of those strange ironies of a land-grant university administrator – standing in the midst of soy test plots, dressed in attire more suited for a conference room than a bean field, admiring the differences in aphid densities on the leaves of two adjacent bean plants. One of the plants had genetic traits that render it resistant to the leaf-sucking insects that can reduce bean yields dramatically. Aphids were luxuriating in the neighboring plant, unendowed with the protective genes. Those two plants and the cream-colored specks on them illustrate the basic concept of a land-grant university, but I didn’t realize that until after I heard the story of their genesis.
There were actually two varieties of soybeans on display, each with slightly different genetic traits that render them aphid-resistant, and both are the results of research conducted by Dr. Dechun Wang, soy breeder and associate professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. Dr. Wang’s work was initiated by the arrival of these aphids in Michigan about 10 years ago. The aphids were originally found in Asia, where soy was domesticated, and I’m not certain when they arrived in North America, but I heard Dr. Chris DiFonzo, professor of entomology relate the story of her first encounter with the aphids in Michigan. She recalled going to a meeting with farmers that had been arranged by Extension educators in southwestern Michigan in 2000, and several farmers came to that meeting with soy plants from their farms that were heavily infested with aphids. Dr. DiFonzo knew immediately what she was looking at, and confirmed it upon return to her lab – these were the first soy aphids to be documented in Michigan. Since then, she and a number of colleagues, both faculty on campus and educators in the field, have tested and shared alternative management practices to help minimize the impacts of the aphids on soy production in Michigan and throughout the north central United States. Shortly after the aphids’ arrival, Dr. Wang began a research program to evaluate a number of genetic varieties of soy plants in order to find some that had natural resistance to the aphids. A small percentage of the thousands of varieties he has evaluated had some resistance, and he has selected the optimal varieties from among these to breed into other standard lines of soy varieties. Last week’s ceremony was meant to celebrate the official release of two commercial varieties branded with the name “Sparta” that carry the resistant traits. Dr. Wang’s work has been supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) and the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee (MSPC).
What struck me as I listened to Dr. DiFonzo tell her story was that it was a perfect illustration of the land-grant concept. In fact, I related the story to some scholars visiting from Iraq immediately after the event to explain how the land-grant concept is meant to work: first, by being present in communities across the state and having relationships with soy growers across the state, growers and educators knew to bring the new challenge to our attention. So many times these new challenges come to us in this way: a stakeholder in the community contacts one of our educators or specialists with an astute observation about something that’s different. By having research scientists on faculty, we have folks like Dr. DiFonzo who can quickly diagnose that this really is something different and is a serious threat. That in turn triggered development of alternative pest management practices – developing pest scouting protocols, setting threshold action limits for application of pest controls, evaluating alternative pest controls, communicating those out to farmers, tracking their application and impacts, and stimulating research among basic scientists at Michigan State University who developed further mechanisms for managing the risks of this new threat. So there we were last week, 10 years after Dr. DiFonzo’s first contact with soybean aphids in Michigan, celebrating two more tools – long-term adaptations if you will – to this threat. And the response worked because we had all of the elements in place: the relationship with growers, the network for surveillance of pest distribution and densities, the set of scientists who could develop and evaluate both short-term and long-term responses, the relationship with organizations like MSPC that have an interest in rapid development of solutions, and a mechanism for communicating that intelligence among farmers who can put the new knowledge to work. The dual investment of federal, state, county and partner funds in MAES and MSU Extension shows its value when it works so well. Thanks to all who have been a part of this effort and congratulations to Dr. Wang on the release of this new genetic material into the tool kit for soy growers in Michigan and beyond.