BLACKSBURG, Oct. 1, 2002 - Scientists at Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Ohio State University today received a $6.74 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the genetics of soybean root rot. 

Soybean root rot, a disease caused by Phytophthora sojae, costs US soybean growers millions of dollars each year. In some years, farmers have lost over 50 percent of their harvest due to this disease.

Since the first reported outbreaks of soybean root rot in the United States, traditional plant breeders have been struggling to identify and understand the genes that confer natural resistance in some soybean varieties. Complicating this quest is what VBI Bioinformatics Professor Brett Tyler refers to as “quantitative genetics,” or many genes working in tandem to naturally protect a plant from disease.

Identifying the ten or so genes working together that confer this natural disease resistance in soybean plants is worse than “finding a needle in a haystack.” The genes are scattered among the more than 30,000 that compose the genome--or entire genetic makeup--of the soybean plant. This dispersion has made the task of identifying disease resistance genes impossible to date.

With the latest tools in biotechnology paired with VBI supercomputers, however, a multidisciplinary research team of seven, led by Tyler, will tackle one of the plant kingdom’s most intriguing mysteries.

"The unique expertise of our interdisciplinary team will help us delve into the secrets of quantitative disease resistance,” Tyler said. “This natural defense mechanism, which has traditionally been useful for farmers, has long puzzled molecular biologists. We aim to solve one of nature’s long-standing riddles by combining many scientific disciplines—plant science, genetics, mathematics, statistics, and plant pathology.”

Soybean cultivars with improved resistance to disease will make US farmers more competitive by reducing crop loss and reducing the need for costly chemical fungicides. These findings will also help improve the growth and yield of other plant and tree species affected by Phytophthora pathogens. Moreover, the bioinformatics methodologies developed can be adapted to identify quantitative resistance genes of many other diseases common to plants, animals, and humans.

“Identifying the genes that confer resistance to Phytophthora will allow us to develop disease resistant soybean varieties through the integration of traditional breeding with biotechnology. We can then work to apply this new knowledge to other crop species,” said Dr. M. A. Saghai Maroof, a plant genetics professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences also working on this project.

Other researchers working on the project include Glenn Buss, Amanda McWatters, Ina Hoeschele, Keying Ye from Virginia Tech, and Anne Dorrance and Steven St. Martin from Ohio State University. The interdisciplinary research team will begin working on this project late this summer.

VBI is a Commonwealth of Virginia economic and research development engine located at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. Established in July of 2000, the Institute merges cutting-edge biological research with state-of-the-art computer science.

Dr. Susan Faulkner
(540) 231-1259; Email:

Stewart MacInnis
(540) 231-5863; Email:


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Published by Public Relations, September 30, 2002