Chen seeks ways to hold the line on devastating disease
By MATTHEW WEAVER
PULLMAN, Wash. -- Stripe rust will never be eliminated.
So says Xianming Chen, plant pathologist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Pullman, Wash., and a leader in U.S. efforts to combat the disease in wheat.
"We cannot eradicate rust," he said. "Rust is airborne, blown by wind. This disease never can go away. If anywhere in the world has this disease, there's still a risk."
Dan Skinner, research leader and geneticist for the research service, said Chen is considered the world's leading authority on stripe rust in wheat.
Chen conducts basic research on the stripe rust pathogen in the laboratory and monitors situations in the field. While he focuses on the Pacific Northwest, cooperating researchers across the United States send information they collect to Chen.
"He's a very independent thinker," Skinner said. "He sees what the problems are and he goes out to solve them. He doesn't wait for someone else to describe what the problems might be."
Wehn he was growing up in China's countryside, Chen's family grew wheat, corn and potatoes. He knew a little about the diseases that occurred in their crops, so he decided to study plant pathology in school.
Upon arriving at Washington State University to work on his master's degree in the 1980s, Chen worked on several diseases, including wheat stripe rust, corn and cotton blight and sweet potato brown rot. He now concentrates on stripe rust, the top wheat disease in China and an important disease in the U.S.
"That's why our research is very useful and helpful for growers," Chen said. "Without controls, the yield loss is huge."
The Pacific Northwest has the best resistance to stripe rust. Scientists believe this is because the calamity conditions have been reduced and the disease receives top priority, even though it is widespread in the United States.
Without the use of resistant cultivars and fungicides, farmers would lose up to 30 percent of their yield when weather conditions are favorable for stripe rust, Chen estimated.
About 90 percent of wheat fields are planted to cultivars with adequate resistance. If that percentage increased to 95 or 100 percent, Chen said, stripe rust would be under control.
Chen wants to make sure farmers have the right cultivars, and that breeding programs continue to develop cultivars with the qualities farmers need, like emergence and quality, along with rust resistance. One of the major aspects of Chen's work is testing breeding lines for resistance.
"We always have something to improve," he said. "Every year we make progress in identifying new sources of resistance."
Xianming Chen: http://plantpath.wsu.edu/people/faculty/chen.htm
USDA ARS: www.ars.usda.gov
Occupation: USDA Agricultural Research Service plant pathologist; Washington State University adjunct professor
Hometown: Shaanxi Province, China
Education: Bachelors of science in plant protection, Northwest Agricultural University, China; master's and doctorate degrees in plant pathology at Washington State University
Current location: Pullman, Wash.
Family: Wife Shuangling Li, sons Liyang Chen, 24, Dongyang Chen, 16