Genetic Engineering and Molecular Plant Pathology: 1980-2001

During this era there were many advances in agricultural technology, machinery, seeds, targeted pesticides, low volume fungicides, and precise fertilization. All resulted in greater efficiency and productivity in crop production.

Fundamental advances in molecular biology and molecular genetics led to more precise and targeted breeding for disease resistance in crop plants. There were remote micro weather stations and satellite surveillance in fields. This allowed tracking of disease progression within fields and more precise and judicial fungicide use. In addition, the rise in digital technology and communications become a huge asset for all researchers, especially those with regional, national, and international projects.

Meanwhile the department’s curriculum undergoes its first major updating in four decades. All faculty and adjunct faculty, are involved. The changes, although initially unsettling, proved very worthwhile in both undergraduate and graduate education endeavors. Later, the University of Minnesota switches from a quarter system of instruction (12 weeks) to a semester system (16 weeks); the curriculum is readjusted accordingly.

This was also an era of budgetary cutbacks and financial constraints on traditional, field-based, disease control research. These were caused by economic and policy factors. When runaway inflation was factored in, there were substantial reductions in support for higher education in general. University enrollments increased; however in agriculture, enrollments decreased. In the department budget cuts brought salary freezes, staff layoffs, and lack of budget flexibility. Culturally, all these factors led to occasional suboptimal morale.

The Genesis of Financial Restraints and Budget Reductions 

Initially, after World War II (1941-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), and in the early years of the Cold War (1945-1991), the nation’s biggest agricultural problem was overproduction. This was especially true for grain and dairy products. Wartime policies encouraged agricultural production and research, and the success of the post-war Green Revolution boosted production even further. Massive grain surpluses accrued.

Historically, US agricultural surpluses were used in foreign aid programs like the Marshall Plan and Food for Peace Program. Surpluses were also used on an ad hoc basis for emergency aid throughout the developing world. Food aid was an important foreign policy and diplomatic tool. In addition, domestic programs like the National School Lunch Act and others helped reduce post-war agricultural surpluses. These policies avoided sharp disruptions in the lives of farmers, like those that happened after World War I.

There was also a massive worldwide post-war baby boom (1946-1964) causing a population explosion. Demand for food rose as the number of humans on the planet increased. What was the magnitude of this population growth? In 1950 there were about 2,500,000,000 humans and fifty years later, in 2000, there were in excess of 6,000,000,000, -- a 240% increase. As the world’s population exploded U.S. agricultural exports soared. Farm policy followed a “Get Big or Get Out” trend and farmers, anticipating expanded markets, borrowed money for expansion. Mechanization of crop production accelerated and historical subsistence family farming declined, as did the rural population. However, as the expansion of farm sizes grew and modernization of farming occurred, inflation crept steadily upwards.  Inflation caused deep concern among economists at the Federal Reserve Bank.

Unanticipated events also impacted U.S. agricultural export markets. For instance, in 1972 the Soviet Union negotiated a multiyear contract for wheat and feed grains with the United States. American farmers responded with increased production and investments. Wheat prices doubled and corn prices tripled. Then in 1980, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In response, the US government canceled Soviet Union grain contracts and halted grain shipments. However, international competitors stepped into this void and supplied the Soviet Union. US market share was reduced.

Coincident with expansion of farms and expansion of farmers’ debt, the United States Federal Reserve Bank tightened monetary policy to fight inflation. Soon prime lending rates soared; they reached an all-time high of 21.5 percent by 1981. The impact of high-interest rates was felt not only in agriculture but throughout the U.S. and world economy. Then, when grain prices fell, the combination of too much farm debt and inflation-fighting fiscal policy created a ‘perfect storm’. The price of commodities like wheat and corn dropped and the price of farmland dropped. Thousands of farm families defaulted on loans and were forced off the land. Scores of rural banks failed and some rural communities began to look like ghost towns. See: Farm Bust of the 1980’s

Effects of Financial Constraints on the Department

The 1980’s farm crisis caused declines in rural population. The political power of rural areas in Minnesota and other farming states faded. Fewer children were raised on farms. Undergraduate and graduate enrollments in the College of Agriculture at Minnesota, and across much of the nation plummeted. Research and education in agriculture shrank as did funding of instruction and research. Public support failed to keep up with inflation. Concurrently, federal and state funding for Extension work and for commodity-based field research was reduced. University departments in the College of Agriculture and related areas experienced budget reductions, Plant Pathology included. The department’s Plant Health Technology Undergraduate Program (PHT) ended when enrollments in the College of Agriculture dropped dramatically. PHT enrollments went from a high of 70 to fewer than 10 students.

The department dealt with funding cuts by first eliminating travel support and then eliminating office staff. Those measures, when they proved insufficient, were followed by cutting support staff in research programs. When faculty retired or left, their positions were not refilled; their salaries reverted to central administration to be reallocated to areas within the University where student enrollment was growing. As Minnesota lowered its overall support to the University of Minnesota, and higher education in general, tuition costs soared. This was not unique to Minnesota; it was a national trend and continued throughout this era. In Minnesota, by the end of this era, less than 25% of the entire University of Minnesota’s budget would come from the State of Minnesota.

When inflation was factored in, Federal spending on agricultural research declined. Some formula based USDA funding was shifted into the USDA Competitive Grant Program. The Competitive Grant Program objectives were narrow and grant funding was short term, for two or three years. Grant funding was called ‘soft money’ support because it couldn’t be counted on. Only 18% of grants submitted to the USDA Competitive Grants Program (nationwide) were successful. And, successful proposals were most often not fully funded. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) fared only slightly better.

Within the departmental efforts aimed at competitive grant funding increased as did efforts at obtaining contracts (both governmental and private). The programs of faculty who succeeded in obtaining contracts or grant funding grew larger as did the number of their graduate students. The ‘growth’ programs were mainly in mycotoxicology, wood product deterioration, molecular biology of pathogenesis and molecular genetics of disease resistance. Traditional areas like extension plant pathology, field pathology and clinical operations shrank as did the number of graduate students associated with these areas. Department heads controlled little or no discretionary monies to help buffer these situations.

Faculty with heavy teaching loads, or those unfortunate enough not to secure competitive grants or contracts or commodity funding were dispirited. And, faculty who succeeded with short-term competitive grant funding spent much of their time writing grant proposals, reports and publishing research. They also spent more time supervising their ever-changing program staff who were supported by soft money. International research collaborations by individual faculty grew and required more time and effort. Some administrators in the upper echelons of the University began to view faculty as ‘Revenue Generating Units’, which many faculty found dehumanizing. Some faculty felt they were on perpetual treadmills.

During the funding crisis the department’s Plant Disease Clinic was in danger of closing. To survive, the Plant Disease Clinic charges the public for telephone consultations through an arrangement entitled - Dial U. To generate revenue Clinic personnel took on contract work for other governmental and some private organizations.

All these events and trends affected the culture within the department. Faculty became more entrepreneurial and business-like and had less time to be collegial. The department lost some of its family-like atmosphere. These changes made the department headship an even more difficult and complex undertaking. Department heads had few if any discretionary funds; they became fundraisers and were more isolated from everyday events in the department.  Heads had less time for intellectual leadership and student interaction. In private, some heads admitted to feeling rather powerless. Nevertheless, all department heads were grateful for departmental endowments used for scholarships and student activities like travel to scientific meetings.

Headship Changes

As demands on the headship position increased, the position turned over four times. In 1984-85 Dr. David French stepped down and was replaced by Dr. Philip O. Larsen, the first non-Minnesota graduate to head the department. Later, in 1992, Philip Larsen was promoted to Associate Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Professor Neil A. Anderson replaced Dr. Larsen as Department Head. Then in 1996 Dr. Anderson wished to return to normal faculty duties and he was replaced by Professor Francis L. Pfleger. Each department head faced unique challenges relating to budgets, retrenchments, reallocations, fundraising and leadership. They all experienced the paradoxes and complexities of the modern headship.

Bright Spots

All was not cutbacks and gloom. There were bright spots; for example, upgrading and renovation of Department of Plant Pathology facilities, lecture halls/seminar rooms, library space and teaching laboratories had long been planned for by the University. Thus, there was a paradoxical situation of decreasing student enrollments, fewer faculty and staff and small budgets while simultaneously witnessing the constructing of world-class facilities.

New teaching laboratories in Borlaug Hall came equipped with student and teaching microscopes, media preparation equipment, chemical hoods and much-needed plant growth chambers. There were new lecture/seminar rooms with modern projection and sound systems. These improvements were most welcome. Faculty who taught laboratory courses and did experiments requiring growth chambers were very pleased. Small increases in supplies for teaching were extracted from a pool of ‘reallocated’ funds. The quality of departmental courses increased.

By the early 1990’s undergraduate student enrollments slowly rose. In Plant Pathology, and in related departments, undergraduate students were increasingly coming from urban and suburban backgrounds. The department could no longer count on students having farm backgrounds. Nevertheless, this ‘new breed of students’ were eager to learn and brought new perspectives. The department’s graduate program also saw increased enrollments of high quality and high ability students.

Other bright spots were commodity groups. Entities like the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, the American Malting Barley Association, the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, the Minnesota Cultivated Wild Rice Council, and the Minnesota Food Processors Association stepped in. These organizations, combined with other sources, provided political influence and legislative support. Some of this private sector resourcing was connected to disease resistance breeding or cooperative disease control measures. The Minnesota Legislature occasionally funded a so-called ‘legislative special’ when need was obvious and political support was mustered. The Department of Plant Pathology benefited from several legislative specials. One special was for wild rice research and was aimed primarily at domesticating wild rice for production in paddies. Another was for urban shade tree disease control (Dutch Elm Disease and Oak Wilt Disease; both diseases were endemic and epidemic). There was another special for taconite mining land reclamation. Taconite derived from rock containing iron ore that needed to be pulverized and the iron extracted.  In the extraction process large electromagnets are passed over the pulverized rock and the iron filings are removed.  However,  the pulverized rock in the form of a water slurry is of great quantity and it was disposed of by being spread over large land areas. These tailing areas are almost devoid of plants because they contain no mycorrhizal fungi which are needed by the roots of shrubs and trees. Departmental mycologists researched and solved the problem and reclamation of tailing areas by sequential vegetation was successful.

The American Chestnut Foundation began with private philanthropic support. Its purpose was to re-establish the iconic American Chestnut. The American Chestnut was much admired for its wood and its tasty nuts. However, Chestnut Blight Disease almost wiped out the American Chestnut in the United States. Chestnut Blight is caused by the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica. This fungus was accidentally introduced to the east coast from Asia. The American Chestnut, having not evolved with this fungus, was completely susceptible. From the east coast the disease spread rapidly throughout the entire tree’s growing range. Minnesota’s emeritus maize geneticist, Dr. Charles Burnham and Professor David French, introduced a backcrossing breeding protocol for introgression of Chestnut Blight resistance from Chinese Chestnut varieties into American Chestnut.

Genetic Engineering

The first genetic transformations of plant tissues and fungi, using biolistic ‘gene guns’ were made. In dicotyledonous plants the bacterial vector Agrobacterium tumefaciens was used. Most transformations made use of modified bacterial plasmids designed with plant virus promoters. Professors Deborah Samac’s, Les Szabo’s and Richard Zeyen’s laboratories were involved with the first transformations. Early experiments were primarily ‘proof of principle’ transformations using reporter genes.

The proof of principle experiments were done to gain experience for future transformations. In the late 1990’s genetic transformation was used to investigate and enhance disease resistance in wholly transformed plants, and to understand pathogen virulence.

Building Departmental Endowments

A very bright spot of this era was the departmental endowment funds. These philanthropic funds were donated by alumni and friends of the department, primarily for scholarships, fellowships, library support and for student travel to scientific meetings. A culture of ‘giving forward’ to future generations started to become established among the department’s alumni and friends. The poignant metaphor, “Planting trees whose shade you’ll never know” undergirded many donors’ motives and objectives.

By 1996 there were 419 alumni and friends, and 97 businesses who contributed gifts, small and large, to various Department of Plant Pathology Endowment Funds. In addition there were gifts and loans of machinery, scientific equipment and instruments.

Endowment funds are invested by the University of Minnesota Foundation and approximately 4% of each fund is used yearly for the specific objective of a given fund. When investments yield more than 4%, the principle of each fund grows, thus ensuring that the objective(s) of each fund can be met in perpetuity. Endowments helped support the Plant Pathology Library, graduate student scholarships and fellowships, visiting scientists, and graduate student travel to scientific meetings.

The one unusual endowment is the E.C. Stakman Softball Fund. It exists only for promoting departmental unity and morale building. Professor Stakman, was an avid softball player and believed in social interactions. He endowed an annual student vs. faculty/staff softball game and picnic. It is a very popular event. It is often held on the anniversary of Stakman’s May 17th, 1885 birthday. Interestingly, the E.C.Stakman Softball Fund is the envy of several departments.

The plant pathology endowments helped in the late 20th century and laid the foundation for a strong department entering the 21st century. Endowments have become very necessary components of the success of the department. Departmental alumni, faculty and staff continue to encourage endowment fund giving and invite donors and friends to departmental events.

The Digital Revolution And Plant Disease Work

The digital age begins with earnest when the north end of the Saint Paul campus is wired with fiber optic cable. Ethernet jacks replace slow telephone modems previously used for internet connection. Communication capability is greatly increased. Faculty interested in regional, national and international research collaborations find it much easier to establish and maintain these working collaborations.

Uganda 99 - An Ancient Enemy Returns In A New Form

In 1999 a new pathogenic grouping of the wheat stem rust disease fungus, Puccinia graminis, arises in Uganda and Kenya. This family of pathogenic races was extremely virulent on the Norman Borlaug Green Revolution’s Miracle Wheats. These wheats were bred for wheat stem rust resistance in the 1950’s and 1960’s at CIMMYT in Mexico. By 1999 Borlaug’s wheat stem rust resistances were used in 80% of all wheat varieties grown in the world. Now this ancient and most deadly wheat disease, wheat stem rust, had evolved and reemerged and was as virulent as ever. The scientific world needed to respond to these newly evolved races like Ug99 and others that were attacking Green Revolution stem rust resistances. The USDA-ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory at Minnesota confirmed the virulence(s) of the new race(s) of the fungus.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, despite his advanced years, traveled to Uganda and Kenya to observe for himself the new epidemics. He then used his international stature and authority to explain to the world just how dire the situation had become.

Minnesota had the largest concentration of cereal rust research talent in the world. Thus, in the early 21st century they become heavily involved in a massive international research, breeding and control effort. The tools provided in the new digital era greatly enhance these international collaborations.

A Previously Minor Disease Explodes

Fusarium head blight (FHB) disease, also known as ear blight or scab, is caused by the floral infecting fungus Fusarium graminearum and other closely related fungi. It has always been present as a low incidence disease. Suddenly it became prevalent in Minnesota wheat and barley fields. Wheat and barley scab disease was found to be promoted by minimal tillage practices.

Change in tillage practices, from deep fall plowing to minimal tillage was being used to prevent winter wind erosion of soil. Fall deep plowing leaves the soil bare, then in winter it is vulnerable to wind erosion. Reduced tillage practices were mandated to stop erosion and for farmers to qualify for government price supports. Minimum tillage left plant residue on the fields. The practice did indeed reduce wind erosion, but with a high biological price. Many saprophytic fungal pathogens, including Fusarium species, overwintered on crop residues. Then, in the next growing season, leaf spotting and stem diseases along with floral diseases like FHB, increased dramatically.

FHB (wheat scab) proved difficult to control by plant breeding. Wheat and barley production were greatly reduced; growers lost income and many lost their farms. Genetic resistance was complex, in both wheat and barley. FHB resistance genes were linked to undesirable plant traits like reduced grain yields and grain quality. In 1997 a large, multistate, federally funded United States Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative began. Several departmental faculty members with expertise in cereal diseases obtained grants and contract funding to combat this problem. Fungicidal treatments and elimination of residue by burning, along with the release of resistant varieties began to control the disease in wheat.

Soybean Cyst Nematode Disease Threatens Minnesota

The soilborne soybean cyst nematode (SCN), Heterodera glycines, is one of the most important soybean pathogens in the United States. It was first reported in Japan in 1915, and was found in Minnesota in 1978. The nematode is spread from field to field by movement of infested soil on farm machinery. Commercial combine operations that move from field to field without thorough cleaning are thought to be the most common carriers. The sale of used farm machinery not properly disinfected also contributed to nematode spread. In Minnesota it was decided that soybean cyst nematode research would be restricted to the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, Minnesota. Professor Senyu Chen, an expert on this pathogen, is hired and stationed at Waseca.

Faculty Consulting Outside the Department Increases in Settled Science Areas

Air pollution research matured and is settled science. Effort in this area moves more toward politics and policy issues rather than original research. There is a rise in faculty consulting in pollution related to plant disease. These consultancies were often with regulatory agencies, corporations, and in some cases foreign governments. A similar situation existed with grain storage disease problems which shifted more into policy and prevention modes. All faculty consulting was reported yearly and done within University guidelines.

International Outreach Changes from Large Programs to Individual Faculty Programs

International outreach changed as the USAID’s Morocco Project ended. International research and teaching linkages, created by individual faculty, increased and were funded by a large variety of non-University sources. Departmental faculty had collaborative efforts in the Arctic, Antarctic, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, England, France, Italy, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Turkey, South Africa, Uganda, Uruguay, the United Kingdom and Vietnam. Faculty and graduate student travel increased as the understanding of global plant disease problems increased.

An Endowed Chair in the Department is Created and Linked to Israel’s Tel Aviv University

The philanthropic community, especially the Minneapolis based Lieberman/Okinow Family, contributed to research funding. They encouraged a disease resistance cereal germplasm collaboration with Tel Aviv University in Israel. Dr. Isaac Wahl, Head of Plant Pathology at Tel Aviv University was a frequent visitor and a long time friend of the department. Dr. Wahl brokered the discussions and Dr. Philip Larsen, the University of Minnesota’s Department Head represented the department. The result was that the University of Minnesota matched the Lieberman/Okinow Family’s gifts on a dollar for dollar basis. Thus, the Lieberman/Okinow Endowed Chair in Cereal Disease Resistance came into existence. It linked the department to the Harold and Adele Lieberman Germplasm Bank at Tel Aviv University in Israel. In Minnesota the Lieberman/Okinow Endowed Chair in Cereal Disease Resistance is part of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Science’s long distance partners arrangement.

Plant Pathology at Minnesota - A 20th Century Success

In the first 93 years of its existence the department went from a small division (The Division of Vegetable Pathology) in an economic Botany department on the Saint Paul (Farm) Campus to a full fledged plant pathology department. The department at Minnesota and the one at Cornell University in the state of New York were the first such departments in the United States of America.

The department was blessed by exceptional leadership of its founder, Dr. Edward Freeman and his protege, Dr. Elvin Stakman. Together they produced an excellent faculty. And, that faculty produced an internationally acclaimed graduate program. Competency and problem solving with a deep understanding of both science and society allowed them and their students to solve many plant disease problems of state, regional and international scope. Some faculty became leaders in the College of Agriculture at Minnesota.

Many alumni also went into leadership positions in colleges, universities and governments around the world. Minnesota’s graduates were highly sought after for their skills and deep understanding of science and human nature.

As a tribute to the department’s excellence and the outstanding accomplishments of its alumni, four buildings on the Saint Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota were named for Minnesota’s plant pathologists. The buildings are: the Kaufert Laboratory Building, the Christensen Laboratory Building, the Stakman Hall of Plant Pathology; and, Borlaug Hall. In addition, by the year 2000, thirteen alumni and faculty had been elected, by their peers, as Presidents of the American Phytopathological Society.

In addition several alumni were elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and Professor Elvin C. Stakman was elected President of the American Academy of Sciences.

Elvin Charles Stakman and his proteges on the world stage

Elvin C. Stakman (Ph.D. 1913) was considered by many to have saved wheat production on the North American Great Plains. Stakman was also a great statesman for science, and was considered to be one of the world’s 100 most important individuals of the first half of the 20th Century. He possessed a powerful intellect, and spoke and wrote several languages. He was a magnetic personality and a persuasive speaker. He had a unique ability to recognize and nurture talented students, and place them in circumstances where they could utilize all their talents.

Stakman was a mentor to many, including Dr. Helen Hart, the first woman President of the American Phytopathological Society. He advised and mentored the renowned Dr. J. George “Dutch” Harrar (Ph.D. 1935) who led the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Program and later became President of the Rockefeller Foundation (1961-1971). Harrar along with F.F. Hill of the Ford Foundation were the driving forces in creating the International Rice Research Institute and a larger series of crop improvement institutes that eventually became the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR).

Together, Drs. Stakman and Harrar recruited Dr. Norman E. Borlaug (M.S. 1941; Ph.D. 1942) to work in Mexico for Rockefeller’s Mexican Program. Borlaug produced the so-called Miracle Wheats while in Mexico (CIMMYT). He received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize as the representative of the 20th century’s Green Revolution. In the judgment of the Nobel Committee the Green Revolution prevented famine and promoted peace. In 1986 Borlaug founded The World Food Prize.

In his later years Elvin Stakman advised and mentored Sir Bent Skovmand (B.S., 1971; M.S., 1973; Ph.D. 1976).

Skovmand worked with Borlaug in CIMMYT. Later he became a world leader in genetic preservation of crop plants and headed the Nordic Genetic Resource Center. Skovmand also helped establish the Svalbard Global Seed Vault near the Arctic Circle (the so-called Doomsday Vault).

In the 20th Century, departmental faculty, alumni and friends received many awards and honors, too numerous to mention here. Interested readers are urged to read the department’s news magazine, the Aurora Sporealis. The Aurora Sporealis, published continuously since 1924, is available online. It reports the exploits, honors and awards of the scions of the department and demonstrates that while members of the department took the science of plant pathology very seriously they were adept at finding humor in their human condition.

Faculty Retirements In This Era

Professors Neil Anderson, Ernest Banttari, Thor Kommendahl, Howard Bissonnette, Bill Kennedy, Alan Roelfs, Jack Shafer, Chester Mirocha, Ward Stienstra, and Roy Wilcoxson all retire in this era. Most had been recruited and appointed in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They were exceptional and extraordinarily talented.