$3 million USDA grant seeds future of an industry

Carrot seed flowers.

By Heidi Happonen


r. Jeremiah Dung, Associate Professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences recently secured a $3M grant from the USDA Specialty Crops Research Initiative to develop a systems approach for managing bacterial blight of carrots. 

Dr. Dung has been at the Central Oregon Agriculture Research and Extension Center (COAREC) in Madras, Oregon since 2014 and from the beginning has worked closely on carrot seed. High-value, specialty crops like carrot seed provide the core of this progressive agricultural community as Oregon leads the nation in carrot seed production providing anywhere from 40-60% of the world’s carrot seed. As such, carrot seed is one of the primary cash crops in the region. According to Dung, carrot seed growers from around the world come to central Oregon to see what the best carrot seed growers in the world do.

That industry is under threat.

Healthy seeds are critical for healthy plants. One of the main diseases that affect carrot seed is a blight caused by a bacterium known as Xanthomonas. This disease is particularly persistent in that it’s been an issue for a long time with no clear solution. 

Since it is seed-born, the disease can be seed transmitted – essentially it can cause leaf blights – reducing the yield and the quality. In terms of the economic impacts to Oregon, it affects marketability as concern has grown about the disease in places where it is traditionally sold. 

Because of that concern, industry has invested in small-scale research projects over the years with COAREC. That research, according to Dung, is what led to the ability to secure this most recent significant grant.

“This grant would not have been possible without the years of support from industry who had invested in a lot of small research projects that pointed to some foundational understanding of the disease that we are now able to study at a much larger scale with this new funding,” said Dung. “We’re always working with stakeholders to address their priorities and taking those incremental steps in understanding this disease has led to our ability to tackle a much bigger effort that we hope will have truly meaningful impact for the carrot seed industry and beyond.” 

Dung’s research has five different kinds of approaches – and while they are distinct, they aren’t necessarily all siloed. 

“This is a four-year project,” Dung added, “but is moving all at once. I anticipate that in two years we will have quite a bit of knowledge in terms of the population genomics aspect and how the disease is being moved in production systems and some of the host pathogen interaction work – there will also be some cool fluorescent microscopy to track the pathogen and really visualize bacteria in and on plants.”

This research is being conducted in collaboration with colleagues in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Oregon State University’s College of Pharmacy, The Ohio State University, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Utah, Washington State University, USDA-ARS Horticultural Crops Research Unit (Corvallis, OR), and the Oregon Department of Agriculture. In addition to providing answers to the carrot seed industry, the hope is that what is learned about this pathogen can be applied to other Xanthomonas species that effect other crops, like cabbage, strawberries and peppers. 

“The list of crops affected by Xanthomonas species is quite long,” Dung added. “The work we are doing here could have tremendous value for the agricultural industry at-large.”

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