Friday, July 18, 2008

$28.4 Million in Funding for Specialty Crop Research Announced By USDA.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer has announced that USDA is making available $28.4 million for research and extension projects in fiscal year 2008 to address the critical needs of the specialty crop industry by developing and disseminating science-based tools to address needs of specific crops.

"This is a substantial investment in scientific research and technology for production of specialty crops that will advance their large contribution to America's agriculture both domestically and in world markets," said Schafer.

The U.S. specialty crop industry is comprised of producers and handlers of fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and nursery crops, including floriculture. It is a major contributor to the U.S. agricultural economy, accounting for 10 million harvested cropland acres in 2004. The total value of U.S. specialty crops is over $50 billion in sales, which puts the combined value of these crops in league with the five major program crops.

Funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative was a major initiative in USDA's farm bill proposal and is authorized through the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. The 2008 farm bill provides an additional $50 million each year for fiscal years 2009 through 2012 for a total of $230 million over the five years of the farm bill. Those interested in applying for funding can access the request for applications online at

The Specialty Crop Research Initiative has five focus areas: 1) plant breeding, genetics and genomics research to improve crop characteristics; 2) efforts to identify and address threats from pests and diseases; 3) innovations and technology, including improved mechanization and technologies that delay or inhibit ripening; 4) efforts to improve production efficiency, productivity and profitability; and 5) methods to prevent, detect, monitor, control and respond to potential food safety hazards in the production and processing of specialty crops.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, CSREES focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Healthy And Productive Olives With Saline water irrigation

BEER-SHEVA, ISRAEL - The news that olives are sources of "good fat" has increased worldwide demand for the luscious, versatile fruits. Olives have become extremely popular, enjoyed as condiments, appetizers, spreads, and additions to salads and sauces. Their heart-healthy oil has is also enjoying superstar status in kitchens around the world.
The olive's reputation as a health food is being borne out by modern science, as studies of olive-consuming Mediterranean peoples have shown. To keep the world's olive lovers satisfied, an intensive wave of olive planting has occurred in the past decade in many parts of the world. Traditionally, olives have been cultivated in the Mediterranean region. But fresh water is becoming increasingly hard to come by in semiarid areas, and irrigation of most new olive plantations is often accomplished with low-quality sources of water that contain relatively high levels of salt.
The relationship between the use of "saline water" and olive cultivation has been actively studied for many years. According to Professor Zeev Wiesman, Department of Biotechnology Engineering at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, it is well-known that saline conditions can limit the development of olives, mainly because the salty water interferes with the olives' root system and causes "toxic accumulation of chloride and sodium ions on the leaves."
Weisman and other researchers recently published the report of a long-term study in which they established a new saline irrigation controlled experimental olive plot. The plot was planted with 12 local olive cultivars as well as olive varieties from Mediterranean countries, then divided into identical subplots: one irrigated with tap water, the second with moderate saline water. "In the study, we aimed to evaluate and compare the vegetative and reproductive multiannual response of mature yielding trees of the 12 tested olive cultivars drip-irrigated with tap water and moderate saline water in a commercial orchard simulation study in a semiarid area", stated Weisman.
Olive trees in both subplots were evaluated for trunk growth, olive yield, oil percentage, olive oil yield, and other characteristics. The data clearly showed a significant difference between the tested cultivars in terms of growth, yield, and oil parameters. Researchers concluded that all the tested olive varieties could be cultivated with moderate saline water irrigation. Weisman added: "Although a significant variation in terms of horticultural performance was found between the various tested olive cultivars, the differences may be attributed to the natural characteristics of each cultivar or to their rate of adaptation to the environmental conditions in the tested area, rather than to moderate saline drip irrigation."

Contact: Michael W. Neff
American Society for Horticultural Science
The complete study and abstract are available on the ASHS HortScience electronic journal web site:

Remote Sensing With Satellite And On Site Digital Cameras Aid Measuring Water Demand And Other Statistics About Horticultural Crops

Measurement of canopy cover on 2-year-old almond orchard using the TetraCam camera on a 6.1-m stand.
Credit: Photo by Thomas Trout
FRESNO, CA - Horticultural crops account for almost 50% of crop sales in the United States, and these crops are carefully managed to ensure good quality. But more information is needed about the crops' growth and response to seasonal and climatic changes so that management practices such as irrigation can be precisely scheduled. Existing research can be difficult to generalize because of variations in crops, planting densities, and cultural practices.

Determining growth stage, size, and water needs are especially important for horticultural crops because most crops are grown in limited water environments and require irrigation. The measurement of "canopy light interception" is a primary means of determining water and irrigation needs. Fractional canopy cover (CC) is a relatively easily measured property that is a good indicator of light interception. Canopy cover, the percent of the soil surface covered by plant foliage, is an important indicator of stage of growth and crop water use in horticultural crops. Methods of using remote sensors to determine canopy cover in major crops have been studied for years, but the studies have not included most horticultural crops.

Thomas J. Trout, Research Leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, along with colleagues from the NASA Earth Science Division, recently published a study that addresses the relationship of remotely sensed normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) relative to canopy cover of several major horticultural crops in commercial fields.

The research team measured canopy cover of 11 different annual and perennial horticultural crops in various growth stages on 30 fields in California's San Joaquin Valley with a handheld multispectral digital camera. Canopy cover was compared with NDVI values calculated from Landsat 5 satellite imagery. According to Trout, "The NDVI was highly correlated and linearly related with measured CC across the wide range of crops, canopy structures, and growth stages, and predicted CC with mean absolute error of 0.047 up to effective full cover. These results indicate that remotely sensed NDVI may be an efficient way to monitor growth stage, and potentially irrigation water demand, of horticultural crops."

The research indicates that NDVI can potentially provide field-specific and regional estimates of CC for horticultural crops with minimal requirement for supporting information. This new information may also be useful to improve estimates of crop growth stage and water use.


The complete study is available on the ASHS HortScience electronic journal web site:

Founded in 1903, the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is the largest organization dedicated to advancing all facets of horticultural research, education and application. More information at

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

USDA Introduces Patriotic Lilacs.

WASHINGTON, DC - Lilacs. The word evokes memories of promising spring days and visions of colorful, perfumed blooms. Lilacs have long been well-loved staples in America's yards and gardens, and have played a storied role in U.S. history.
Native to East Asia and Southeast Europe, lilacs were brought to North America by the first settlers and were sold in American nurseries as early as 1800. The oldest living lilacs in North America may be those at the Governor Wentworth estate in Portsmouth, N.H., believed to have been planted around 1750. In 1767, Thomas Jefferson recorded his method of planting lilacs in his garden book, and in 1785, George Washington noted that he had transplanted lilacs in his garden. Today, over two million lilacs are sold annually in the U.S., accounting for over $13 million in wholesale sales.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently developed and introduced three new cultivars of lilacs. Honoring the patriotic role lilacs have played in U.S. history, the new shrubs have been dubbed 'Betsy Ross', 'Old Glory', and 'Declaration'.
Betsy Ross (left), Old Glory (middle), and Declaration (right).
Credit: Photo by Margaret R. Pooler

Dr. Margaret Pooler, a research geneticist at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service and U.S. National Arboretum, published a report in the April 2008 issue of HortScience, announcing the release of the new lilacs. According to Dr. Pooler, The National Arboretum's lilac breeding program was started in the 1970s to develop lilacs that were adapted to warmer climates, had good mildew tolerance, and a showy, fragrant floral display. 'Betsy Ross', boasting pale cream buds that emerge into pure white flowers, was released in 2000. 'Old Glory', and 'Declaration' were introduced in 2006. Both of the newer lilacs came from the same controlled hybridization, but have markedly different traits.
'Old Glory' was selected for its abundant fragrant bluish-purple flowers, rounded growth habit, and disease-tolerant foliage. According to Dr. Pooler, "In the Washington, DC, area, 'Old Glory' reaches a mature size of approximately 12 feet tall by 13 feet wide, and shows good tolerance to Cercospora blight and Pseudomonas syringae in warmer climates where these diseases are a problem."
'Declaration' was selected for its large, fragrant, dark reddish-purple flowers and open upright growth habit. In Washington, DC, its mature size is 8.5 feet tall and 7 feet wide; however, it performs best in traditional cooler lilac-growing regions. The names of all three cultivars were selected as part of a "U.S. Flag" series of lilacs from the National Arboretum. Both 'Declaration' and 'Old Glory' were tested by growers throughout the U.S. and are currently being propagated and should be available at retailers this year.

More information;

Betsy Ross, Old Glory, Declaration

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Maize Varieties From Ancient Mexico

Sequencing of ancient corn landraces to ensure genetic diversity and resources

Maize was first domesticated in the highlands of Mexico about 10,000 years ago and is now one of the most important crop plants in the world. It is a member of the grass family, which also hosts the world's other major crops including rice, wheat, barley, sorghum, and sugar cane. As early agriculturalists selected plants with desirable traits, they were also selecting genes important for transforming a wild grass into a food plant. Since that time, Mexican farmers have created thousands of varieties suitable for cultivation in the numerous environments in the Mexican landscape—from dry, temperate highlands to moist, tropical lowlands. Because of its importance as food, the need to improve yield, and the challenges presented by changing climate, the maize genome of the B73 cultivar is being sequenced. However, because maize has a complex genome and many varieties, the genome sequence from just one variety will not be adequate to represent the diversity of maize worldwide. Mexican scientists are also sequencing and analyzing the genomes of the ancient landraces to recapture the full genetic diversity of this complex and adaptable crop.

Dr. Vielle-Calzada and his colleagues, Octavio Martinez de la Vega, Julio Vega-Arrenguin, Gustavo Hernandez-Guzman, Enrique Ibarra-Laclette, Beatriz Jimenez-Moraila, Guilermo Corona-Armenta, Cesar Alvarez-Mejia, Araceli Fernandez-Cortes, Gustavo de la Riva, Alfredo Herrera-Estrella, and Luis Herrera-Estrella, are in the process of sequencing one of the ancient popcorn races, Palomero, and analyzing its molecular and functional diversity relative to other maize races. Dr. Vielle-Calzada, of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity, Cinvestav, Mexico, will be presenting this work at a symposium on Maize Biology at the annual meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists in Mérida, Mexico (June 28, 11:30 AM).

Like other varieties of maize, the popcorn landraces are used throughout the world. Archeological evidence traces the earliest popcorn in the USA to New Mexico, suggesting an overland dispersal from the highlands of central Mexico into the northern plains of Mexico and then into the southwestern USA. Recent studies also support the hypothesis that popcorns are some of the oldest races of maize and group closely with teosinte in phylogenetic analyses.

Palomero is an ancient popcorn landrace of the Central and Northern Highlands Group. Vielle-Calzada and his colleagues estimated that its genome is about 22% smaller than that of B73. Their structural and functional analysis of this genome reveals a large number of unreported sequences, suggesting that the ancient landraces contain a large pool of unexplored genetic diversity that could be useful in new crop generation as well as the study of the evolution and domestication of maize and other cereals. Other studies in Mexico and elsewhere have shown that Mexican maize varieties are extraordinarily diverse.

Maize is a good model plant for studying the development of cereal crops because of its complex genome, numerous developmental mutants, and thousands of varieties. It is thought that as many as 1200 genes were selected in the process of transforming maize into a versatile food plant, and the process continues today. In regions throughout Mexico, farmers still cultivate local or criollo maize varieties in traditional ways as well as generating new varieties. They are thus contributing to conservation of the genetic diversity of maize and preserving traits that could be useful in yet unforeseen circumstances.

Many of the ancient varieties like Palomero were adaptations to different environmental conditions such as different soils, temperature, altitude, and drought. Preservation of these varieties and knowledge of their genetic and adaptive histories are of paramount importance as farmers around the world cope with changes in temperature and water availability and struggle to maintain a food supply for growing populations. These sequencing efforts are providing the data for genomic and mutant analyses that are needed for the genetic engineering of crops to improve yield as well as resistance to pests and tolerance for difficult growing conditions. The knowledge gained from these efforts can also be applied in crop and yield improvement efforts for other cereals.

Image from Velozramos

Dr. Jean-Philippe Vielle-Calzada
462- 623-9634
Fiesta Americana Merida : +52-999-942-1111

Brian Hyps
Contact: Dr. Jean-Philippe Vielle-Calzada
American Society of Plant Biologists

Monday, June 23, 2008

Survival Of Winged Seed, At The Age Of Global Warming.

(Kingston, ON) – The hardiest plants and those most likely to survive the climatic shifts brought about by global warming are now easier to identify, thanks to new research findings by a team from Queen's University.

"Predicting the speed at which plants are likely to migrate during climate warming could be key to ensuring their survival," says Queen's Biology professor Christopher Eckert.

Populations of plants growing at the outer edges of their natural "geographic range" exist in a precarious balance between extinction of existing populations and founding of new populations, via seed dispersal into vacant but suitable habitat. "Policy makers concerned with preserving plant species should focus not only on conserving land where species are now, but also where they may be found in the future," says Dr. Eckert.

This observation stems from his recent study – published in the scientific journal New Phytologist – which shows for the first time that natural selection gives a boost to the seed dispersal traits of those plants growing at the edges of their natural ranges.

If species are going to persist in the face of a changing climate, they must move to stay within the climate zone to which they are best adapted, Dr. Eckert explains. Their ability to relocate with shifts in regional climate brought about by global warming will largely depend on their capacity for dispersal, especially in populations near the limit of their geographical distributions.

With undergraduate student Emily Darling and PhD student Karen Samis, Dr. Eckert studied the geographic distribution and dispersal biology of Abronia umbellata (pink sand verbena), a flowering plant endemic to the Pacific coastal dunes of North America. By surveying plants throughout the 2000-km geographic range, and measuring seed dispersal with a wind tunnel in the Faculty of Applied Sciences, they showed that plants at range limits produce seeds with larger wings, thus increasing dispersal in the winds that commonly buffet costal habitats.

"The way evolution works at range limits has been brought into sharper focus by the debate over how species will respond via migration to climate warming," says Dr. Eckert. "It's clear that these marginal populations are adapted in ways that more central populations aren't."

According to Cornell University biologist Monica Geber, in an editorial focused on this new research, the Queen's team has "flipped the question of dispersal limitation on its head to ask whether range-edge populations have diverged, through adaptive evolution, from central populations to increase their colonizing ability."

There has been considerable debate as to whether these northern peripheral populations are worth conserving, Dr. Eckert notes. If they possess adaptations that will enhance their ability to expand their range during climate change, then the answer is yes, he says. His team has recently shown that in Vaccinium stamineum (deerberry) – a threatened plant related to the blueberry – the capacity for seed dispersal appears to increase sharply towards the range limit in Canada.

In addition, some threatened Canadian populations produce high-quality seeds that exhibit rapid germination and particularly high seedling growth.

"These observations are consistent with our work on coastal dune plants, suggesting that our results may have general relevance and significance for species conservation in changing global environments" says Dr. Eckert.

Contact: Nancy Dorrance
Queen's University

Life on the edge: To disperse, or become extinct?

Plants existing at the edges of their natural habitats may enhance survival of the species during global warming, says Queen's professor.

Survival Of Winged Seed, At The Age Of Global Warming.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Roll Of Silicon In Flowering Plants

STILLWATER, OK -- Vibrant, showy sunflowers are revered worldwide for their beauty and versatility. While many varieties of sunflower are grown specifically for their nutritional benefits, ornamental sunflowers have become standards for commercial growers and everyday gardeners. As sunflowers' popularity grows, scientists are looking for new supplements and growing methods to enhance production and quality of this celebrated annual.

Horticulturists have found ample evidence that plants depend on "essential nutrients"; naturally occurring elements that are found in normal plant tissue that are essential for the completion of the life cycle of the plant. Although silicon, a predominant element in mineral soil, is not considered to be an essential nutrient for most plants, there has been limited evidence that silicon supplements affect the aesthetic qualities of ornamental flowers and crops.

Drs. Sophia Kamenidou and Todd J. Cavins, formerly of the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Oklahoma State University, published a research study in the February, 2008 issue of HortScience in which they examine the effects of silicon supplements on sunflowers grown in greenhouse environments.

"In greenhouse production, most floricultural crops are cultivated in soilless substrates, which often supply limited amounts of plant-available silicon. The goal of this study was to determine the effects of silicon supplementation on greenhouse-produced ornamental sunflower (Helianthus annuus L. ‘Ring of Fire’).", explained Cavins. "This is one of the first studies to highlight supplemental silicon impact on horticultural traits. Most previous research on silicon has focused on disease suppression in hydroponic vegetable production. This is also one of the few examples of detrimental effects seen from high silicon concentrations."

Depending on the source and concentration of silicon used, several horticultural traits were improved as a result of silicon supplementation. "We observed thick, straight stems, increased flower and stem diameters, and increased height in some of the treatments, upgrading sunflower quality compared with untreated controls. However, growth abnormalities were observed when concentrations of silicon at 100 and 200 mg per liter were supplied as potassium silicate substrate drenches. In these treatments, plants appeared stunted with deformed flowers and were delayed in flowering. Consequently, the effects of silicon supplementation on greenhouse-produced sunflowers can vary from beneficial to detrimental depending on the applied source and concentration.", stated Cavins.

Summarizing the study outcomes, Cavins said, "Silicon is a key component in mineral soil, but it has been overlooked for years since it is not considered an essential element for plant growth and development. Sunflowers are capable of accumulating silicon from multiple sources and we found major benefits to some silicon supplements, such as increased stem diameter and improved quality."

The complete study and abstract are available on the ASHS HortScience electronic journal web site:

Monday, April 07, 2008

CropDesign develops ‘traits’ for the global Rice seed market.

Genetically modified rice seedlings. During the first few weeks, cell clusters (so-called calli) develop from the seeds which then grow into seedlings. These are initially grown in climate-controlled growth chambers. Once the plants are big enough, they are transferred to the greenhouse until they are ready to be harvested.

Belgian biotechnology company CropDesign develops ‘traits’ for the global seed market. A trait is a genetic feature that gives a crop an economically useful characteristic, such as higher yield. Traits are determined by a plant’s genes. CropDesign specializes in traits for yield enhancement, higher drought and salt tolerance, and improved take-up of nutrients in crops such as cereals and rice. CropDesign became a subsidiary of BASF Plant Science in 2006.
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