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K-State Today

June 22, 2011

Plant pathologist finding Kansas wheat fields a molecular battleground this season

Submitted by Julie Fosberg

With harvest in full swing, many farmers have found that the brutal combination of high winds, scorching temperatures and minimal rainfall has left most wheat yields looking less like the good or the bad and more like the ugly.

But as a Kansas State University plant pathologist is finding in a statewide study, Kansas wheat this year also has been battling a much smaller opponent: viruses.

"We're still analyzing samples, but it's turning out that the viruses in wheat are extremely abundant this year," said Anna Whitfield, an associate professor of plant pathology who studies the plant-virus-vector interactions at the molecular level. Whitfield's extensive research in this area led to the Ad Astra Kansas Initiative this month to name her one of the state's top 150 scientists of past and present. So far K-State has had seven active faculty members named as top scientists in Kansas.

This summer Whitfield is part of a small collaboration that for six months has been investigating the diversity of wheat-infecting viruses across the state. The study, "Enabling Biotechnological Breakthroughs for Effective Control of Wheat Virus Diseases in Kansas," is intended to find what are the most important viruses infecting Kansas wheat, as well as what the yield losses are to those viral diseases.

"For more than 30 years wheat testing has been based on visuals," Whitfield said. "With this study we're able to take samples back to the lab to test for those diseases that can't be seen by the naked eye. The thought is that there are other viruses out there, and we're finding that's the case."

In an effort to detect these viruses, Whitfield and colleague Dorith Rotenberg, research assistant professor of plant pathology, are testing nearly 800 plant tissue samples collected throughout Kansas. The duo tests the samples through a process called enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA for short. ELISA uses antibodies to detect viral proteins that may be in the plant tissue.

The study ends in August and is being funded by a grant from Heartland Plant Innovations Inc., a Manhattan-based company. Also working on this study are William Bockus, professor of plant pathology; Erick De Wolf, associate professor of plant pathology; John Appel, plant pathologist at the Kansas Department of Agriculture; and a team of student researchers.

Whitfield is also continuing work on the tomato spotted wilt virus, the wheat streak mosaic virus and the maize mosaic rhabdovirus -- three diseases that are largely spread by arthropods and insects to plants, and result in large crop losses. Her work on the insect interaction with these viruses has been earning Whitfield other recognition as an-up-and-coming scholar in the field.

In 2010 she was awarded a $1 million CAREER Award by the National Science Foundation to fund her work on how the corn planthopper carries and transfers the maize mosaic rhabdovirus from plant to plant and how the insect responds to the viruses itself. Though it cannot transfer to humans, the maize mosaic rhabdovirus is in the same family as rabies. Whitfield's research team has initiated a study to discover whether insects are affected the same way mammals are and if as a result this leads to a greater transmission of the virus. 

The Ad Astra Kansas Initiative is a Hutchinson-based organization that works toward promoting the scientific accomplishments of Kansas researchers and innovators who work in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Ad Astra's project, "Science in Kansas: 150 Years and Counting," celebrates the state's sesquicentennial, and is meant to emphasize the importance of science and the career possibilities in research and innovation to K-12 students.