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University of Arkansas opens avenues of research for soybean rust

FAYETTEVILLE, ARK. - University of Arkansas (UA) Division of Agriculture scientists are launching research to answer the questions raised by the arrival of Asian soybean rust in Arkansas.

"That's our job as researchers," says Pengyin Chen, UA soybean breeder. "We work to provide Arkansas producers with solutions for problems like soybean rust."

Division research and Extension scientists have formed a working group to educate producers about how to identify and manage the fungal disease. "All the data we're using are from South America, says John Rupe, UA plant pathologist." We have a lot of research to do to understand how it works here."

Rupe and other plant pathologists will research the use of fungicides and cultural practices for the most effective and affordable means of managing the disease. Chen will screen existing varieties for tolerance and resistance while simultaneously working to develop improved varieties with resistance.

Soybean rust arrived last fall on the winds of hurricane Ivan, Rupe says. It came too late in the season to cause serious harm to Arkansas' crop, but questions remain about what it means to the future of the state's soybean production.

The big question, says Rupe: “Will it show up in 2005?" The rust probably can't over-winter in Arkansas because it requires a living host. "That means plants with green leaves. It has a wide host range, including kudzu, but all of its hosts are deciduous and lose their leaves during the winter."

To survive, soybean rust will have to over-winter in warmer climates and blow in on the wind, says Rupe. But because it arrived by hurricane in 2004, there is no established pattern for how it may spread on seasonal winds.

In anticipation of the disease's return, plant pathologists will be looking at the effectiveness of available fungicides, application methods and cultural practices. "Such things as row spacing have an impact on the effectiveness of fungicides because the spray has to reach the lower canopy," says Rupe.

Because fungicides have to be applied early, “sentinel” plots with very early-maturing varieties will be used to detect the spread of soybean rust while there's still time to protect the crops. "We'll also be studying environmental factors to see what conditions make infection more or less likely.”

On another front, Chen has obtained seed samples from the USDA germplasm collection that have four major sources of resistance to soybean rust. He will cross them with Arkansas adapted varieties and accelerate the breeding process by cycling plantings in a greenhouse with field plots in Arkansas and Costa Rica.

By doing so, “We can get two to three generations a year," says Chen. "The advantage of developing resistant plants is that disease protection is built in. It saves the expense, labor and environmental concerns of spraying fungicides. Even low levels of resistance or tolerance can save producers the expense of a second fungicide application."

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