Mustang Seeds continues to fund alfalfa research at DSU

DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS Conner Tordsen (left), Jenni Giles and Travis Rebstock have begun collecting soil samples from alfalfa fields. They are conducting research funded by Mustang Seeds.

A Dakota State University research team is once again taking to fields around eastern South Dakota to collect samples to further alfalfa research in the state.

"It stems from some observations Conner and Jenni made in the fields last year," Andrew Sathoff, assistant professor of biology at DSU, reported.

With funding from Mustang Seeds, they are looking for Pythium, a fungus which rots seeds, preventing alfalfa from getting established. Continuing the work this year are seniors Conner Tordsen and Jenni Giles, who worked with Sathoff last year. They found the experience piqued their interest.

"It made us want to go further with the research," Tordsen said, adding that it will also help them when they apply for graduate programs.

He is considering dental school and Giles is considering a medical profession. They are joined by Travis Rebstock, a fourth-year biology student.

Research funded last year by Mustang Seeds enabled the DSU researchers to identify Aphanomyces root rot in 10 of 15 counties surveyed. Giles continued their research during the school year with a grant through DSU's Student Research Initiative.

"I used the soil we collected last summer and ran tests," she stated, indicating those tests showed the presence of Pythium in the region. "We're going off that work with new soil."

Jason DeVaney, small grains product manager at Mustang Seeds, said the Madison company is funding this research because it enables them to provide better information to customers regarding products they have available.

"DSU was able to provide a map in our local area of sales to exhibit APH strains, along with the destruction that this has on the plants themselves," he said. The research team also presented their research to customers during Mustang Seeds field days.

DSU is currently conducting the only alfalfa research in the state. In addition to presenting findings for Mustang Seeds customers, Giles presented her research on Pythium to state legislators at the 2021 Student Research Poster Session at the state Capitol. She was one of 15 undergraduate researchers from colleges and universities to make a presentation.

Giles and Tordsen will make a presentation at Plant Health 2021, a national online conference organized by the American Phytopathological Society. The two have been listed as lead authors on the publications which have resulted from their research.

This year, in addition to conducting research and presenting their findings, the researchers are teaching tomorrow's ag producers how research is conducted. When a 4-H Leadership Team, comprised of students ranging in age from 13-18, asked to tour the facility, they were invited to help.

Using germinator paper, which looks and feels like newsprint, they rolled sterilized alfalfa seeds into "little burritos" with soil which had already been collected, Sathoff explained. He credited his team with suggesting 4-H students get that kind of firsthand experience.

"I think it's kind of cool," Rebstock said. "When we came to college, we didn't know anything like that."

"It actually helps us out," Giles said. "We'll use their little rolls to look at and put on plates."

After the seeds germinate, they will be removed from the soil packets and placed in petri dishes with sterilized water and agar, a substance extracted from algae and used to grow cultures. Using a microscope, sections of the culture containing only the fungus -- not part of the root -- will be removed from that dish and placed in a new dish.

"Once we get this awesome culture, we can do all kinds of things with it," Sathoff said.

This year, their research will include not only testing soil to see whether Pythium is present but also testing current fungicides to see whether they are effective and Mustang Seed alfalfa varieties to see if they have any natural resistance to Pythium.

"The way to protect against it may be different seed coatings," Sathoff said. However, if some varieties are naturally resistant, they may not need seed coatings.

The research team is working with some of the same growers with whom they worked last year.

"They were interested in being part of further alfalfa research," Sathoff said, indicating they were asked last year when contacted with research results. "This time, we're going to be doing a more thorough characterization."

Last year, the team was looking for Aphanomyces root rot and found two types. This year, with DNA sequencing, they will be able to distinguish between the various species and subspecies of fungus.

Because research has only begun for the year, the team is still collecting samples. Producers who would like to have their fields tested can contact Sathoff at Andrew.Sathoff@dsu.edu.