An Uruguayan Experience Enriching More Than Research Skills

March 3, 2016

Plant Pathology Student Justin Stanton Uruguay Internship

By Justin Stanton, Plant Pathology M.S. Student

During the fall semester of 2015, I had the opportunity to experience an internship with Plant Pathology alumna Dr. Silvia Pereyra at the Instituto Nacional de Investigacion Agropecuaria (INIA) La Estanzuela Experimental Station in Uruguay. The ten-week internship was the perfect amount of time for me to experience the culture, climate, Spanish language, and agriculture that this small South American country has to offer.

Since my master's thesis research is focused on the causal agent of bacterial leaf streak (BLS) in wheat and barley, the goal of this trip was to collaborate with INIA researchers to gain experience working with another prominent pathogen in small grains, Fusarium graminearum, the primary cause of Fusarium head blight (FHB) in small grains. Both FHB and BLS have the potential to be problematic under favorable conditions, however FHB has a much longer history of reducing yield and grain quality in Minnesota. Fusarium damages yield and grain quality by infecting the head of the wheat plant, which limits kernel size and contaminates grain with mycotoxins. Since FHB is a concern for producers around the world, taking the time to learn about it will aid me in a potential future career working in cereal grain research.

The first objective of my trip was to understand the diversity of the Fusarium spp. and the chemotypes of these species that contributed to FHB epidemics in Uruguay. In years with particularly high amounts of FHB, samples were collected from across the country and sent to chemistry faculty members at the University of the Republic in Uruguay’s capital city Montevideo for identification. Real-time PCR was performed to identify the species of Fusarium within a given sample. I spent a day here trying this technique for the first time. I processed six-grain samples from the previous year’s surveys and completed the entire process from milling the grain to analysis.

The second objective I had was to contribute to the development of a new FHB disease forecasting model. INIA was planning to replace the Canadian DONCast model with a potentially more reliable model, known as GIBSIM. Developed in Brazil, this new model integrates the host, pathogen and environmental factors that contribute to successful infection events. The model will be eventually be deployed to predict the proportion of susceptible plant tissue on a daily basis, in relation to inoculum spore density and weather factors (temperature, rain, relative humidity, and solar radiation). During my trip I contributed to the development of this model by collecting observational notes, including heading date and anthesis data.

The final objective of my FHB work was to help with field experiments examining the effect of individual fungicides and cultivars on disease control. One of my first tasks upon arriving was to colonize sterile corn grain with Fusarium, which served as inoculum in these field trials. During these trials I was able to observe the production of ascospore inoculum. In the last two weeks of my internship I scored these plots for FHB severity and incidence. Unfortunately, since my internship ended prior to harvest, I was not able to observe the final results of these experiments. However, information I was exposed to from previous years provided insight into the importance of fungicide timing treatments for controlling both FHB development and the levels of the mycotoxin DON in grain.

Much of the field work was performed in the second half of my internship when heading, flowering, and FHB notes could be taken. This allowed time to undertake some additional activities in the first half of my trip that significantly contributed to the value of my internship. For several days, I was able to network with industry researchers on a field trip to Argentina. Here I was able to observe fungicide trials across multiple field locations and tour a high-security research station where pre-experimental chemicals are field tested. I also was able to work with researchers at INIA on a variety of their research projects, including race typing Phytophthora sojae on a soybean differential set, cross-pollinating wheat and helping the pathology group implement lab techniques when working with bacterial pathogens.

Overall this internship proved to be very valuable to my educational, professional and personal development. The ability to travel to Uruguay allowed me to study an alternative pathogen in the field without interfering with my thesis research here in Minnesota. This was my first time out of North America and I was eager to take in everything I could. Coming away from this experience, I’ve left with much more than I anticipated. I was also fortunate to make many friends during my travels and I look forward to seeing them again.

This trip was made possible because of departmental travel funds. Find out more information about how you can help support graduate student internships.