Into the Wild

Plant Pathology Professor Brian Steffenson led a group of University of Minnesota graduate students on a trip to Israel to learn about crop wild relatives, the local culture and more.

By Brian Steffenson

Plant Pathology Into the Wild

As Plant Pathology Professor and Lieberman-Okinow Endowed Chair, Brian Steffenson is well aware that ancient grains hold many secrets valuable to keeping modern cereal crops healthy and are vital to global food security efforts. As a part of a newly developed short course, Steffenson led University of Minnesota graduate students to Israel in April, to teach them about ancient grains, otherwise known as crop wild relatives, and how they may help hold the key to keeping crops such as wheat, barley and oats healthy in the face of disease pressures and extreme climatic conditions.

This four-day course entitled “Cereal Crop Wild Relatives: Importance To Cultivar Improvement,” was held on April 17-20, and was jointly offered by the Institute of Cereal Crops Improvement (ICCI) at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology. The course brought together students from the University of Minnesota’s Plant Pathology and Agronomy and Plant Genetics departments along with a cohort of graduate students from TAU to focus on the evolution, ecology, domestication and genetics of cereal crop wild relatives through lectures, laboratories and field trips.

Plant Pathology Students Into the WildAlthough Israel is small in terms of land area, Steffenson considered bringing students there essential for learning about cereal wild relatives since the country is extraordinarily rich in its genetic resources with respect to wheat, barley and oat.

“Israel is one of the most fascinating natural laboratories for studying the evolution and ecology of cereal crop wild relatives,” said Steffenson. “Bringing University of Minnesota graduate students to this unique center of diversity for cereal wild relatives and to engage them with other students and faculty members from TAU is extremely gratifying for me since I’ve been working to create an experience like this for some time.”

The History

While Steffenson has fostered the exchange of scholars with TAU since coming to the University of Minnesota in late 2000, the first UM-TAU linkages date back to the 1950s when TAU Professor Isaac Wahl visited Professor and Department Head E. C. Stakman in the Department of Plant Pathology at Minnesota. It was Wahl who first met the Minneapolis-based Lieberman family, engaging them in stories about the importance of Israel’s genetic resources and their key role in helping to alleviate hunger in the world.

Wanting to continue to enrich this relationship between the two universities with a joint course for students, Adina Breiman, professor at Tel Aviv University, Jim Bradeen, professor of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology, Steffenson and Dan Lieberman pitched the idea to create a crop wild relatives course to TAU Vice President and Professor Raanan Rein during a 2014 visit to Israel. Rein, along with the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota, was instrumental in securing funding for the short course. After nearly a year of planning, the course was advertised to students in late 2015.

Learning about crop wild relatives and new cultures

For Shuyi Huang, a plant pathology graduate student from China, this experience was a fitting capstone to her M.S. thesis research on disease resistance in the wild wheat relative Aegilops longissima, which is native to Israel. After growing this species under the artificial conditions of the greenhouse during two Minnesota winters, Huang finally had a chance to see the plant in its native habitat.

Plant Pathology Into the Wild with Brian Steffenson and Shuyi Huang“I was amazed to see the diversity of the species in Israel where the height of the plants differed by almost three feet depending on the site and soil type,” said Huang.

Huang was also struck by the great loss of habitats for Ae. longissima. Having documented the importance of this species as a source of valuable disease resistance genes for wheat, she greatly appreciates the efforts of ICCI-TAU scientists to collect, characterize and preserve different collections of the species across Israel.

Kayla Altendorf, an applied plant sciences Ph.D. student who is working to improve intermediate wheatgrass into a perennial grain-producing crop, noted that seeing the progenitors of cultivated wheat, barley and oats in their small remaining natural habitats allowed her to imagine the expansiveness of their historical range and how the genetic variation has evolved over time.

“Visiting the wild progenitor populations in Israel helped me to understand the fragility of their habitats and further stressed the importance of maintaining them for the potential they may have in breeding for disease and stress resistance,” said Altendorf.  

The trip to Israel was an opportunity to learn about more than just cereal wild relatives, as students were also exposed to the local culture. The week spent in Israel included the start of Passover so the students had a chance to experience many of the ancient rituals for this holiday, several related to the removal of leavened food and beverage products from public places. Alex Ollhoff and Altendorf participated in a family seder at the invitation of May Tene a TAU graduate student.

"The Tene family was so warm and welcoming. It was the perfect cultural experience for our last evening,” Ollhoff said.

For all of the students, the lessons learned in the course greatly exceeded their expectations. Although Zenith Tandukar, an applied plant sciences Ph.D. student from Nepal, had great difficulties in obtaining a visa to come to Israel, he said it was more than worth all of the trouble in the end.

“This was a start to a truly life-changing experience for me with new friendships, mentors and an overall appreciation of the importance of collaborative learning in academia,” said  Tandukar.

What is a cereal crop wild relative?

A crop wild relative is a wild plant that is the ancestor of modern domesticated cereals such as wheat, barley and oats.These plants typically still exist in their original habitat and possess the greatest amount of genetic diversity.

Why are they important?

Modern cereal crops were domesticated about 10,000 years ago. This process, together with modern plant breeding has greatly narrowed the genetic diversity of our crops. Without genetic diversity, breeders cannot make additional gains in yield, end use quality or disease resistance.  Crop wild relatives contain many diverse genes that can be incorporated into creating healthier and higher yielding crops for tomorrow.

“The genetic diversity present in these wild relatives is our salvation when calamities such as disease epidemics and insect infestations arise. They also provide a genetic hedge against climate change as many wild relatives possess tolerance to heat, drought and salinity stress,” said Steffenson.

Efforts to preserve this diversity

For Steffenson’s team, they work with several wild wheat and barley species native to the Fertile Crescent region, especially Israel Many of the natural habitats for these species is being destroyed by urbanization and ironically agriculture itself.  

As a result of this loss of habitats,  Steffenson and partners from Tel Aviv University are working to collect  and then characterize  the existing plant populations for genes useful for cereal crop improvement.

“It is critically important to preserve these cereal wild relatives because so much of their natural habitats have been destroyed. Without them, we will not be able to source the genes that may save us from the next disease outbreak,”said Steffenson.