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AgriLife researchers tackling root rot, drought, biofuels

New director stresses teamwork at Corpus Christi AgriLife Center


Areas of research at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi include livestock fertility and nutrition, aquaculture, forage improvement, agricultural economics, weed science and water quality. Aquaculture research facilities are located in nearby Flour Bluff (shown here) and Port Aransas (Photo by Neal Trolinger.)

The many issues facing the agriculturally rich Coastal Bend area of Texas can best be tackled using highly focused teams of experts, said Dr. Juan Landivar, who last summer was appointed director of the Corpus Christi AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Corpus Christi.

"It's impossible for one person to resolve these very complex, entrenched and sometimes very old challenges here," Landivar said. "The advantage of using diverse and multi-disciplinary teams to confront these problems is that it divides the task and increases the chances of success."

Challenges range from battling drought and crop diseases to turning algae into biofuels, he said.

One challenge is of particular interest to Landivar because it is such an old nemesis: cotton root rot. The soil-borne pathogen has been a wily bane to Corpus Christi area cotton growers for over a century.

"It's been a costly and formidable foe here for decades," he said. "But we've got a new arsenal we'd like to throw at this old enemy."

Like detectives who use new technologies to solve old crimes, Landivar thinks new technology can help reduce the impact of root rot on cotton growth and yield.

"With the current developments in precision farming techniques like using GPS (Global Positioning Systems) and variable rate applications, I'm confident that with teamwork we can study this disease more effectively to reduce its impact," he said.

The cotton root rot team Landivar is assembling includes agricultural engineers, plant pathologists and agronomists.

"We need to develop more knowledge about cotton root rot's pathogen biology, ecology, survival and the interaction between parasite and host," he said.

Drought is another old foe, one that currently has a tight grip on the area's cotton and grain sorghum growers.

"It's easy to see why a team is needed for developing drought-tolerant crops," he said. "In a drought, there's a dynamic interaction among the soil, the plant and the environment."

To handle all the mechanisms that control water loss in plants, Landivar said a larger team, already assembled, is needed.

This team consists of soil scientists, soil physicists, soil chemists, plant scientists (breeders, physiologists, agronomists), climatologists and agricultural engineers.

A similar team has been assembled to develop cropping systems unique to the area.

"The object here is to provide plants with the best environment possible to maximize yield potential and quality," he said. "Here we need all those experts involved in soils and plant growth management to understand the environmental factors that play a role, plus experts to deal with insect and disease pressures."

The ultimate challenge for teamwork involves research efforts to turn pond scum, or algae, into biofuels, Landivar said.

"Here is where it gets really exciting," he said. "This effort of developing strains of algae that produce oil merges the two largest industries in the Coastal Bend area: agriculture and energy."

The premise is not as far-fetched as it might seem, Landivar said.

"The fossil fuels we're currently consuming at far too fast a rate, actually come from pre-historic algae, not just dinosaur bones as most people think. Our challenge is to screen and develop strains of algae that can efficiently convert chemical waste into diesel for cars and trucks or jet fuel for airplanes. Imagine the teamwork involved in marrying agriculture to the petroleum industry."

Landivar said he envisions a multi-million dollar industry resulting from this research that takes carbon dioxide wastes from power plants and nutrients from effluent water treatment plants to grow algae that produce biofuels.

"As center director, I'm here to support our research and extension efforts," he said. "I'm constantly asking our experts, 'What are your problems and impediments and how can I help you resolve them?'"

Landivar has on his office wall a Ronald Reagan quote, slightly modified, that he said embraces the philosophy he's strived to instill at the Corpus Christi center since being named director.

It reads, "We at AgriLife should learn to look at our work with the eyes of the entrepreneur, seeing possibilities where others see problems."

Other areas of research at the center include livestock fertility and nutrition, aquaculture, forage improvement, agricultural economics, weed science and water quality.


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