Major advances against some of the world’s most devastating plant diseases are starting to emerge from more than a decade of international scientific collaboration led by Brett Tyler, director of the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing at Oregon State University. Tyler has fostered collaborative research in China, the United States and Europe on a group of organisms that cause diseases such as late blight in potatoes and soybean root rot. Both diseases cost millions of dollars in annual crop losses worldwide.
The joint research activities have advanced food production by understanding how plants such as potatoes and soybeans resist disease and how the genes responsible for resistance can be incorporated into new varieties. Potatoes developed by European researchers that incorporate these findings are just starting to hit commercial markets, and research is continuing on soybean diseases in the U.S. and China.
The People’s Republic of China recognized Tyler on Sept. 29 for his achievements with its highest civic award for non-Chinese scientists. Tyler, who is also a professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, received the Friendship Award of China for a decade of technical assistance and scientific collaboration with researchers at Nanjing Agricultural University and other Chinese institutions.
“It’s a wonderful bridge across the Pacific with the joint objective of increasing food security,” Tyler said.
Tyler, holder of the Stewart Chair in Gene Research, coordinates a worldwide research program on plant pathogens known to scientists as oomycetes. He and his colleagues have identified plant genes that confer long-term resistance to these pathogens. Scientists have focused on plant and pathogen genetics because the diseases can be so devastating, and pesticides tend to be rapidly evaded by these adaptable organisms.
“I have been working with an expanding circle of collaborators in China,” said Tyler, who has traveled to China 13 times. “We have published papers in top journals and established a growing collaborative research program.” In addition to his collaboration with researchers in Nanjing, he has worked with scientists at the Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University, Tsinghua University, the Beijing Genome Institute, Shandong Agricultural University and Yangzhou University.
Tyler’s Chinese partners — especially Yuanchao Wang at Nanjing and Weixing Shan at the NW Agricultural and Forestry University — have formed a consortium in China to apply the results of their disease resistance work in soybean and potato breeding. At the same time, Tyler has developed a similar network involving 19 institutions in the United States. With funding from the U.S. and Chinese governments, labs on both sides of the Pacific have hosted exchange students, jointly planned experiments and shared data.
“During our ten years of cooperation, Brett has helped to guide our research,” said Wang. “Research on the molecular genetics of oomycetes in China started from our cooperation. Brett helped us set up a great platform of genetic transformation and bioinformatics in Nanjing, and many other groups in China learned how to do this research from my group.”
The Chinese government has invested heavily in research in the last decade, added Tyler. “Our colleagues in China now have research facilities that are equal to or surpass what we have available in the United States,” he said.
Genes that provide long-term resistance to oomycete diseases are just starting to emerge in commercially available crops. “Resistance genes have been used in breeding for a long time, but many of them have been quickly defeated by the pathogens,” said Tyler. “We’ve uncovered why that happens. The pathogen produces a group of proteins that the plant has learned to detect.
Unfortunately, these are proteins that the pathogen can quickly change. Now we have started to identify proteins the pathogen cannot change.”
In 2011, the USDA awarded $9.3 million to Tyler and his colleagues to apply their research to the U.S. soybean crop. Tyler’s Chinese collaborators are also contributing to that project. Soybean root rot causes major crop losses in China.