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New Study Aims to Stop Disease That Threatens Kansas Wheat

Researcher has been awarded a two-year $150,000 postdoctoral fellowship to lead a study on the genetics of barley yellow dwarf viruses

Kansas State University

Barley yellow dwarf virus-infected Kansas winter wheatBarley yellow dwarf virus-infected Kansas winter wheat shows stunting, center, and yellow leaf tips in May 2016. The inset shows the severely stunted wheat tillers and red-tipped leaves that are typical effects of the disease.Photo courtesy of Alma G. Laney

MANHATTAN — With the help of a federal fellowship, a Kansas State University plant pathology postdoctoral research associate will study a serious disease that has caused substantial losses to wheat and other grain crops in Kansas and around the world.

Alma G. Laney has been awarded a two-year $150,000 postdoctoral fellowship to lead a study on the genetics of barley yellow dwarf viruses, which cause barley yellow dwarf. This disease of wheat and other grains worldwide is carried from plant to plant by sap-sucking aphids. In years with severe outbreaks, the losses to Kansas wheat growers have been significant. In 2012, the disease caused a 2.3 percent yield loss in the state that was estimated to be worth $78 million dollars.

The fellowship was awarded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Human Sciences Education and Literacy Initiative, or ELI.

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Laney's project is an extension of work on barley yellow dwarf in Kansas winter wheat that has been ongoing in the Kansas State University Plant Virus-Vector Interactions Lab and Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Plant Disease Control. The project is led by Dorith Rotenberg, research associate professor of plant pathology at Kansas State University. 

Rotenberg said Laney brings curiosity, enthusiasm, and rigor to virological research.

"Laney strategically developed a project of agricultural significance to tackle the problem of emergent plant viruses in Kansas wheat—an important and challenging project with big payoffs to stakeholders," Rotenberg said.

The 20-year average loss caused by barley yellow dwarf in Kansas is about 1 percent, a portion that adds up to significant losses over time. Rotenberg's lab discovered that barley yellow dwarf virus isolates in Kansas possess unique genetic characteristics that may explain their prevalence. Laney's project is developing tools to study the biological consequences of the genetic features of these viruses and determining if these features affect the spread of viruses via aphids. The results of the project will enhance understanding of how to control the spread of plant viruses in Kansas. 

The ELI fellowship program is intended to help train the next generation of agricultural scientists, extension professionals, and educators. This competitive fellowship supports innovative research as well as outlining a professional mentoring plan and a strategy for sharing new findings with both the scientific community and the general public.

"Laney's fellowship has launched a promising career for him in infectious disease research aimed at securing the U.S. food supply," Rotenberg said.