Say No to Rust

Virginia Tech awarded grant for rust-resistant switchgrass gene work
By Lisa Gibson | April 25, 2011

An assistant professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech has been awarded a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop and deploy rust-fungus-resistant genes and monitor the pathogen in switchgrass. It’s the second monetary award his research into rust resistance has earned him.

Bingyu Zhao and his research colleagues at Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State University and Iowa State University discovered potential rust resistance genes in several switchgrass cultivars from their large germplasm. The researchers will now work to enhance their ability to genetically identify rust resistance genes and associate those genes with molecular markers. They will also develop a system for functional analysis of putative rust resistance genes in switchgrass, and analyze the DNA of the switchgrass rust pathogen to determine the structure and dynamics of rust populations across the country, according to Virginia Tech.       

“A potential virus-induced, gene-silencing tool for quickly analyzing the function of rust resistance genes in switchgrass has been developed,” Zhao says. As a complement to the natural gene, a novel strategy developed by a research team at Virginia Tech’s Virginia Bioinformatics Institute will be tried to generate switchgrass cultivars with broad spectrum rust disease resistance, he adds. Generating those cultivars is the aim of the research, followed by their strategic deployment according to the rust pathogen population to ensure large-scale and sustainable biomass production, Zhao says.

In 2009, Zhao also received a $1 million Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation for his research on a disease-resistant gene in corn that will prevent bacteria from invading distantly related plant species. The award is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious for creative junior faculty. 

—Lisa Gibson