The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded Virginia Tech a five-year, $2.7 million grant to study integrated management of zoosporic pathogens and irrigation water quality to create a more sustainable green industry.
Chuanxue Hong, professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the project’s director, explained that the study will help the nursery and floriculture industry become more sustainable, enabling it to better compete in the global market. In particular, the project will search for biologically based control methods for the Phytophthora and Pythium pathogens and develop best management practices to recycle irrigation water safely to protect water quality and improve water use efficiency.
“What we learn will have applications not only to crop health but also to much broader areas, such as water quality,” said Hong, who works at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Virginia Beach, Va. “This project aims to reduce the crop health risk associated with recycling water for irrigation purposes and to answer the question, ‘How can we make the production of nursery and greenhouse crops a more sustainable industry?’”
Named after the Greek for “plant destroyer,” the Phytophthora genus contains at least 120 species of pathogens harmful to a wide range of ecologically and economically important plants. In Virginia, researchers have identified 35 Phytophthora species from irrigation water. According to Hong, nursery and greenhouse owners faced with a water shortage have to recycle water to irrigate their crops, inadvertently causing these waterborne plant pathogens to affect their plants and, therefore, their bottom line.
“We want growers to recycle water, but we don’t want them to recycle pathogens,” Hong said.
Hong and his colleagues are examining the path of these pathogens and developing biologically based management strategies that will prevent them from reaching the pump house. “We are also studying how we can manipulate certain aspects of the water quality, such as the pH level, to kill the pathogens, and we want to know what kind of effect these water quality changes have on crops,” Hong added.
The researchers are studying the biology of the pathogens so they can use this knowledge to develop protocols for best management practices and help growers design or modify irrigation systems that prevent pathogens from reaching horticultural crops. Although Hong and his colleagues are evaluating whether individual species are aquatic or terrestrial and what degree of damage they have on nursery and floral crops, the research team aims to develop strategies that deal with the Phytophthora genus in its entirety.
According to Hong, an irrigation system that dealt with pathogen problems would have lasting rewards for growers. “When farmers build a new irrigation system and modify existing systems based on the results of this project, they will benefit forever from such one-time investment,” he said.
Other partners in the project include Pennsylvania State University, the University of Maryland, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the University of California-Riverside, Rutgers University, and Christopher Newport University.
In October, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded more than $46 million through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative to universities and research centers around the country. Including this grant, Virginia Tech has received more than $6.5 million to solve specialty crop agricultural issues through research and Extension activities.