Michigan State University Receives $590,000 Grant for Tar Spot Resistance Research – AgFax

Tar stain on corn leaf. Photo: University of Illinois

A team of scientists from Michigan State University has received more than $590,000 from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture to study resistance to tar spot, a devastating disease of corn.

The project is carried by Addie Thompsonassistant professor of maize genetics and genomics in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.

A fungal disease exacerbated by wet and humid conditions, tar spot was restricted to Central and South America before 2015. Since then, however, the pathogen has rapidly spread across the United States, confirmed in 10 states and in Ontario, Canada, with the potential to further expand its reach.

Tar spot appears as small black lesions on the upper and lower leaf surfaces that act quickly to degrade plant tissue. According to previous studies, the disease can multiply rapidly – from a few spots on a plant to an entire field in less than three weeks.

Thompson said corn growers often use fungicides to control other fungal diseases, but they’re expensive and don’t prevent tar spot, only slowing its growth once it’s already there. Data is also lacking on the most prudent timing for fungicide application.

Additionally, resistant varieties from tropical regions are poorly adapted to growing conditions in the United States, and the mechanisms of resistance are still largely a mystery. Advancing knowledge in this field is crucial for developing high-performance and resistant hybrids.

“Many Michigan corn growers have experienced significant yield loss due to tar spot, so it’s important for the health of the industry to learn more about how we can prevent disease and treat,” said Thompson, whose work is also supported by MSU AgBioResearch. “We need to better understand the resistance mechanisms to avoid future yield losses.”

For this project, Thompson and his team will characterize the phenolic compounds that accumulate in corn in response to tar spot infection. Phenolic compounds are essential in defending plants against pests and diseases. Researchers will then test and validate previously identified resistance genes.

Using this information, along with remote sensing data collected through multispectral and hyperspectral imagery, the group will create predictive models of the severity of tar spots and the relationship to accumulation of phenolic compounds. This can ideally help to detect the early onset of the disease.

Thompson said this multimodal approach will accelerate the discovery of resistance traits that can be used to develop highly resistant maize varieties.

“Understanding the relationship between compound accumulation and resistance will allow the development of new corn varieties that are less dependent on pesticides,” Thompson said. “The results will be highly applicable to breeders and growers, which is why this project is innovative and timely, as this new disease is spreading at an alarming rate every year throughout the Upper Midwest.”

The research team also includes:

  • Erich GrotewoldProfessor and Director of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, specializing in phenolic biochemistry and molecular genetics.
  • Martin Chilversassociate professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences and pathologist.
  • Erin BuntingAssistant Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Space Sciences at MSU and Director of Research and Outreach Services in Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems.
  • jessica mieselassociate professor in the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences, and ecosystem ecologist with expertise in spectral biology.

The project builds on previous work funded by the USDA, the Great Lakes Tar Spot Initiative. This multi-state effort included partners from Purdue University and the University of Wisconsin.

“We are delighted with the continued funding from the USDA to address this urgent challenge,” said Thompson. “We are committed to helping growers across the country increase yields and profitability, as well as improve food security by protecting one of our country’s staple crops.

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