University of Florida

South American beetle released by UF researchers benefits Florida ranchers

Topic(s): Biocontrols, Entomology and Nematology, Invasive Species, Livestock

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Over the past two decades, Florida cattle ranchers have spent as much as $16 million a year doing battle with an invasive weed called tropical soda apple, known as TSA, that takes over pastures, elbowing out the forage grasses ranchers need for their cattle.

But a beetle released by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is taking a bite out of the problem by feeding on the weed and reducing its competitiveness. UF researchers describe the beetle’s success as a biological control agent in the current issue of the journal Florida Entomologist.

Gratiana boliviana, as the beetle is known to scientists, is a native of South America and the first biological control agent in North America to be used against TSA. The beetles are highly specific feeders whose voracious appetite is focused only on TSA but not on related plants such as eggplant, peppers or potatoes.

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Maria Gallo named UF/IFAS agronomy chairman

Topic(s): Announcements, Crops, Uncategorized

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Maria Gallo, a molecular genetics professor, has been named chairman of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ agronomy department.

Jack Payne, UF’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, announced the move Jan. 14. Gallo, who has served as the interim department chair since September 2009, replaces Jerry Bennett, the department’s chair for 17 years. Bennett is now serving as the department’s graduate coordinator and teaching.

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UF receives $7.9 million to improve food security and human nutrition in Mozambique

Topic(s): Announcements, Crops

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida has secured a four-year, $7.9 million award to lead a unique new collaboration among experts in the U.S. and Brazil to improve agriculture and food security in the African nation of Mozambique.

The program model, known as trilateral cooperation, involves collaboration between two donor countries to help one beneficiary country, said Walter Bowen, international programs director for UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Bowen will lead a team of scientists from UF and Michigan State University on the award, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The project’s primary goals are to reduce hunger and poverty in Mozambique by increasing agricultural productivity, creating economic opportunities and enhancing human nutrition. Partners based in Brazil and Mozambique will include institutes of higher learning and agricultural research agencies. Project activities in Mozambique will commence this spring.

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UF/IFAS receives $5 million donation to boost entomology and nematology

Topic(s): Announcements, Entomology and Nematology, New Technology, Pests

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Most people wouldn’t be inclined to show a passion for insects, but in a state that is home to several major seaports and provides a year-round climate where, on the average, a new species of insect is introduced each month, one Floridian in particular is very interested.

Longtime Florida resident Charles Steinmetz has made a career out of the study and management of insects and now wants to make sure the future of pest management research and education continues at the University of Florida.

UF officials announced today that Steinmetz and his wife, Lynn, have committed $5 million to create five new permanent endowments, including three professorships, an entrepreneurship fellowship fund, a research fund and additional support for an existing student scholarship fund. The support is directed to UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Department of Entomology and Nematology.

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UF-led team sequences first-ever citrus genomes; discovery may help thwart greening

Topic(s): Citrus, New Technology, RECs

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A University of Florida-led group of international scientists has assembled the genome sequences for two citrus varieties—sweet orange and Clementine mandarin—marking a first for citrus.

The Clementine mandarin sequence is the higher quality of the two, but both are expected to help scientists unravel the secrets behind citrus diseases such as greening, a deadly threat to the state’s $9 billion citrus industry, as well as aiding those working to improve fruit flavor and quality.

Florida citrus industry officials said they were thrilled, and relieved, by the news.

“The publication of the sweet orange and tangerine genomes will accelerate the discovery of innovative solutions to a myriad of pest and disease problems that threaten citrus production,” said Dan Gunter, chief operating officer of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation Inc.

Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade organization comprised of 8,000 members, called genomics “the future of not only Florida citrus, but the entire global citrus industry.”

“It is exciting to see breakthroughs such as the release of these (genome) assemblies and I am confident the talented scientists working on this project will eventually propagate a citrus cultivar that withstands disease pressure and allows consumers worldwide to continue enjoying nutritious citrus products,” he said.

The genome sequences, the result of at least four years’ worth of study and $3.5 million invested by several countries, were announced Saturday at the International Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego.

The announcement comes just weeks after a similar announcement that another international team, led by UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Virginia Tech scientists, had published the DNA sequence for the strawberry.

The Clementine mandarin genome came from a haploid, meaning it has a single set of chromosomes. The scientists used a more detailed method of obtaining its genome sequence, which was more expensive, but provides longer strings of DNA, said UF’s Fred Gmitter, a horticultural sciences professor and Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences member who led the effort.

“For us, it means it gives you longer reads, longer pieces—so that you’re assembling a jigsaw puzzle out of a million pieces, instead of out of 25 million smaller pieces,” Gmitter said. “What’s most important is to have this high-quality, original haploid reference sequence. And we did that.”

The team that worked to obtain the gene sequence for the Clementine mandarin included scientists from the University of Florida, Italy, Brazil, France and Spain and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI). Simultaneously, work was being done to obtain the diploid sweet orange sequence by scientists from UF, JGI, Georgia Tech and 454 Life Sciences, a Roche Company.

“I’m proud that our scientists helped lead the way in this world-class research,” said Mark McLellan, IFAS’ dean for research. “We believe having these genome sequences will greatly help the state’s citrus industry, as well as citrus growers around the world.”

Since its discovery in Florida in 2005, greening has caused havoc in the citrus industry. It has wiped out some citrus crops in Asia, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Brazil. Greening slowly weakens and kills all types of citrus trees, while rendering fruit malformed and discolored.

But while the two new genome sequences may provide just the tool scientists need to help them solve the greening crisis, Gmitter said having them is “really much, much, bigger than that.”

Some of the possibilities, he said, include citrus trees with more beautiful fruit, better disease resistance, more phytonutrients, and tolerance for salt, bad soil or extreme temperatures.

California citrus grower Earl Rutz, vice chairman of that state’s Citrus Research Board, praised what he called “the first of its kind as a true international collaboration with benefits for all in the citrus research community.”

Peter McClure, a Florida citrus grower and former chairman of the Florida Citrus Research Production Advisory Council, called the genome sequences great news for the citrus industry, which has often battled serious foes in weather and disease.

“From a global perspective, unless sustainable solutions are found citrus will also become extinct for many subsistence level farmers around the globe that utilize citrus as an important fresh fruit nutrient source as well as an important high-value cash crop,” McClure said. “HLB (greening) is an extremely complicated disease problem, and sequencing the citrus genome is a real breakthrough towards solving HLB. There is still a lot of work to do, but this gets us closer.”

Ted Batkin, president of the California Citrus Research Board, praised the work, saying the new information could allow breeding of new varieties specific to geographic regions.

“The importance of a complete genome sequence cannot be stressed enough,” he said.


Writer:  Mickie Anderson, 352-273-3566, mickiea@ufl.edu

Sources: Fred Gmitter, 863-956-1151, ext. 1301, fgmitter@ufl.edu

Mark McLellan, 352-392-1784, mrm1@ufl.edu

UF-led study finds tiny shorebirds benefit from big storms

Topic(s): Conservation, Weather

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tiny threatened shorebirds on Florida’s west coast not only survive hurricanes, they seem to benefit from the storms’ aftereffects, according to new research findings that contradict conventional wisdom.

The findings could have implications for beach nourishment efforts throughout the world and how they affect wildlife.

A paper published Wednesday by the online biology journal PLoS ONE outlines the University of Florida and Florida State University scientists’ findings that in the year following “tropical cyclones” — a term that covers hurricanes, tropical storms and tropical depressions — snowy plovers were seven times as likely to nest in affected coastal areas. (more …)

Strawberry genome-sequence will lead to better fruit for consumers

Topic(s): Agriculture, Crops, New Technology

Caption at bottom. Click for high-resolution image.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — An international team of scientists led by the University of Florida and Virginia Tech is the first to publish the DNA sequence for the strawberry — a development expected to yield tastier, hardier varieties of the berry and other crops in its family.

The genome sequence, obtained by a team of 75 researchers from 38 institutions around the globe, will be published Dec. 26 in the online version of the journal Nature Genetics.

“We’ve created the strawberry parts list,” said researcher Kevin Folta, an associate professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “For every organism on the planet, if you’re going to try any advanced research, such as molecular-assisted breeding, a parts list is really helpful. In the old days, we had to go out and figure out what the parts were. Now we know the molecular nuts and bolts that make up the strawberry plant.”

Having that “parts list” in hand will enable strawberry breeders to bring new varieties to market faster, creating plants that can be grown with less environmental impact, better nutritional profiles and larger yields.

“All of those dividends are probably at least a decade off, but they are definitely realities on the horticultural radar screen,” said Folta, a member of the UF Genetics Institute.

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