UF/IFAS researchers earn $11M in federal grants to study specialty crops

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers will work to improve avocado production, develop turfgrass with improved drought responses and combat a bacterial disease riddling tomatoes, working with $11 million in recently awarded federal grants.

The grants were announced Oct. 5 by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Randy Ploetz, a plant pathology professor at the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, Florida, will use $3.4 million to study how to stem the impact of laurel wilt on avocados. Kevin Kenworthy, an associate professor of agronomy, received $4.4 million to study drought resistance in certain turf grasses, and Gary Vallad, an associate professor of plant pathology at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, Florida, will use $3.4 million to improve the management of a bacterial disease that plagues tomato production.

“Laurel wilt is a complex and difficult problem, as it involves unknown beetle vectors, a virulent and unusual pathogen, Raffaelea lauricola, and a highly susceptible host (the avocado tree),” Ploetz said. “The disease is poised to destroy Florida’s avocado industry, and threatens significant avocado production in California and areas outside the United States.”

Ploetz said his project will fill critical data gaps on laurel wilt, develop novel and cost-effective measures to manage the disease and assess the economics of control measures and their adoption by producers. Stakeholders in Florida and California will be advised on the disease’s status, consulted on project objectives, and informed on advances in its management, he said. Project output will be delivered in both English and Spanish.

Kenworthy will work with scientists at Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, North Carolina State and the University of Georgia to further test warm season turfgrasses for their water requirements and ability to persist under long-term drought conditions.

These turfgrasses responded favorably to short-term drought in a previous USDA-funded project involving the same universities, Kenworthy said.

“Our newly funded project will involve input from turfgrass breeders, plant physiologists, turfgrass management specialists, turfgrass Extension specialists, economists and statisticians, and it will provide information relative to these advanced lines for their sod and weed management practices,” Kenworthy said. “A significant component of the project will involve Extension efforts to learn more about what the industry understands regarding drought responses of turf, what traits are most important to end users and the development of educational tools to inform the industry about new drought-resistant turfgrasses that may become commercially available from this project.”

Vallad and other UF researchers will team with researchers at the University of Central Florida, Cornell University, University of California-Berkeley, Ohio State University and Louisiana State University to develop effective strategies for managing bacterial spot of tomato, which is caused by several species of Xanthomonas.  The team will examine global and regional movement of the bacterial pathogen through plant materials, and evaluate novel materials and methods to improve seed and seedling health and to reduce disease outbreaks. The team will also advance breeding efforts to develop tomato varieties with improved resistance to bacterial spot for commercial production.

“Our efforts will determine industry perceptions of the risk and impact of bacterial spot, and promote the adoption of new seed technology and other disease control measures throughout the tomato production chain,” Vallad said. “Grower surveys and cost-benefit analyses will be performed to assess the economic impact of bacterial spot to tomato production and the value of developed management recommendations to the industry.”

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By: Brad Buck, 352-294-3303, bradbuck@ufl.edu

Sources: Randy Ploetz, 305-246-7001, ext. 321, kelly12@ufl.edu

Kevin Kenworthy, 352-392-6189, kenworth@ufl.edu

Gary Vallad, 813-633-4121, gvallad@ufl.edu