From Cotton Grower Magazine – March 2015
An insidious disease known as Cotton Leaf Curl Virus has wreaked havoc in cotton fields through Pakistan, India – and most recently, China – for several years, leaving growers with small curled plants that never make it past the vegetative stage.
The virus been classified as a potential threat to U.S. agriculture by USDA. And although it is currently not found in the Western Hemisphere, the first line of defense for the cotton industry is already in place.
You can thank Dr. Jodi Scheffler for that. Cotton growers in Pakistan and India have already had the chance.
Scheffler is a geneticist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, based at the Jamie Whitten Delta States Research Center in Stoneville, MS. And although scientists and breeders are generally not household names, growers will certainly recognize some of the advances to improve the utility and value of cotton fiber and seed that have come out of Scheffler’s greenhouses.
Things like new marker resources for cotton breeding, improved efficiency of nematode resistance breeding projects, enhanced natural host plant resistance to pests, and ways to add economic value to cottonseed as a high quality protein animal feed.
Not bad for an Iowa farm girl who never saw a cotton plant up close until 2000.
“Growing up, I always knew I wanted to do something with breeding and growing plants,” recalled Scheffler. She’s certainly made the most of that goal.
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees – plus experience in soybean breeding – from Iowa State University. From there, it was on to the University of Wisconsin for her Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics, with a focus on forage breeding. Then came several years in postdoctoral work as a scientist and technical consultant at research and breeding institutions in Germany and the United Kingdom, where she worked in breeding programs for potatoes, flax and canola.
When it was time to come back to the U.S., Scheffler applied for a soybean job with USDA. Little did she know where fate – and the U.S. government – would take her. “The government, in their infinite wisdom, offered me a cotton genetics job,” she laughed.
So she went to work learning the cotton industry. She visited Cotton Incorporated and campuses in major cotton-producing states, familiarized herself with the research programs, and picked the brains of some of cotton’s living legends who lived in the Leland/Stoneville area.
“George Ray Walker, who at that time had already sold Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Company, was a wealth of information,” she said. “He would come out to the field and tell me things that I should ‘be knowing.’ He gave me a good feel for how the cotton industry developed. Plus, all of the major seed companies were right here and had research stations where they produced seed.
“If I needed to learn a lot of things quickly, this was the place to be.”
The Cotton Leaf Curl Virus work came through a United States Agency for International Development project to help Pakistan improve agricultural stability and food security. The virus was identified as a major problem. Scheffler developed the project protocol and built a research team with the expertise needed to tackle the project.
“Our Pakistani partners screened everything in their germplasm collection and found no resistance to the virus,” said Scheffler. “We sent seed samples from our germplasm collection to Pakistan for screening. So far, we’ve found 12 lines that seem to provide good resistance. We’re also working to develop diagnostic tests to help track the disease in countries where the virus is spreading.”
In 2013, USDA gave the green light to begin proactive breeding against diseases that might have a chance to come to the U.S. Sheffler and her team made crosses between the resistant material and U.S.-adapted varieties for screening in Pakistan. Seed companies have taken notice of her work.
“We now have third generation lines that have the resistance gene,” she explained. “After we get our results back from this year’s testing, we’ll be doing more of the backcross breeding needed to transfer it into those nice high yielding/good fiber backgrounds. We have funding in place for at least another two years for variety development and to get the diagnostic test ready for use in the U.S.”
Her work on the Cotton Leaf Curl Virus project, as well as her broad background in cotton genetics research, earned Sheffler the 2014 Cotton Genetics Research Award, presented annually by U.S. commercial cotton breeders.
For her, it’s just part of a day’s work.
“I was always told that you have to cross everything together, then have the eye to pick the right one,” said Scheffler. “It’s always a humbling experience, and if someone can really use it, that’s even better.”