Plant physiologist Dale Shaner
(left) and technician Douglass
Barlin locate seed bank samples
with GPS (global positioning
system) coordinates so a map of
the seed bank can be created.
You spend hours plucking each weed from your backyard
garden. Then you spray some chemicals you bought from a local hardware
store to make sure those pests don't reappear. Everything looks fineuntil
next year when even more weeds appear.
Persistent weeds are a common problem for both the novice
gardener and the professional farmer. When weed seeds fall, they form
weed seed banks in the soil"future weed problems waiting
for you," according to Agricultural
Research Service plant physiologist Lori J. Wiles.
The goal of Wiles and other ARS scientists studying the
ecology of weed seed banks is to help farmers find inexpensive, environmentally
friendly ways to manage them. Unchecked, weeds will tap resources that
crops need to produce profitable yields.
Weed seeds are identified
by their size, shape, and
color. Seeds of nine weed
species are shown.
First, Find the Weeds
Wiles's research focuses on the spatial distribution of weed seed banks.
At the Water Management Research Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado,
she takes soil samples to map locations of weed seed banks in a given
field. Wiles found that the seed banks are distributed in a patchy manner,
which can be both good and bad for the farmer, she says. Using the maps
as a guide, farmers can treat just the weed patches with minimal amounts
of the appropriate chemical. This so-called site-specific weed management
can mean a 30- to 80-percent reduction in herbicide use, which saves
the farmer money and benefits the environment. But it can take a lot
of soil samples to get an accurate mapand that can be costly.
Wiles says it costs $2.71 to identify and count the seeds in each 4-inch
Wiles is now researching ways to make maps that will improve the farmer's
bottom line. One key is to find out how many samples are really necessary
to create an accurate weed map. Fortunately, the spatial distribution
of weed seed banks is relatively stable, so farmers may have to create
a map only every few years. Also, Wiles is putting the finishing touches
on a software programWEEDSITEthat helps growers investigate
the value of site-specific management of weed seed banks and seedlings
in cornfields. The program should be available soon.
Using a microscope, technician
Douglass Barlin counts and
identifies weed seeds extracted
from soil samples.
| Then, Customize Chemical Use
Plant physiologist Dale L. Shaner, also of the Water Management Lab,
looks specifically at herbicide use for weed seed banks. "We use
only the amount of herbicide we need to get the job done," he says.
Shaner studies and maps the electrical conductivity (EC) of cropland
soil. Low EC indicates that an area contains lesser amounts of clay
and organic matter. In such areas, herbicide binds loosely to soil particles,
meaning less chemical can be used. (To learn more about EC maps, see
Agricultural Research, December
2002.) Together, Shaner and Wiles hope to combine both types of
maps into a system that would not only locate the seed banks, but also
identify which chemicals are best to apply and in what amounts.
Or . . . Put Weeds to Sleep
At ARS' Red River Valley Agricultural Research Center in Fargo, North
Dakota, Michael Foley, James V. Anderson, Dave Horvath, and Wun Chao
are studying biologically based methods of fighting weeds. Their approach
targets a physiological state known as dormancy, which affects weed
seeds and root buds. The team's research complements that of Wiles and
Shaner in that dormancy is key to the persistence of weed seed banks.
Technician Douglass Barlin
extracts weed seeds with
water from soil samples
using an elutriator.
| "Dormancy," explains
Foley, who heads the center's Plant Sciences Research Unit, "is the
inhibition of seed germination, even though the environmental conditions
are suitable for the plant's growth." It's an evolutionary strategy
to ensure weed and seed survival through periods of unfavorable conditions.
Two weeds receiving attention are leafy spurge and wild oat. Foley
says, "The roots of leafy spurge have little pink buds. If the
plant's top is damaged, each root bud is capable of regenerating a new
plant." This is one reason why leafy spurge is such a problem in
rangelands of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakotastates
where the weed causes $120 million annually in economic losses.
No less troublesome is wild oat, whose infiltration of cropland in
North Dakota alone costs up to $200 million annually in yield losses
and production costs. "Wild oat is mainly a problem in areas where
small grains like barley and wheat are grown," Foley says. Its
similarity to these crops limits herbicide use.
With North Dakota State University professor Shakryar Kianian, Foley
is using molecular genetics to identify DNA markers associated with
the dormancy trait in wild oat seeds. So far, they've identified markers
associated with three quantitative trait locilarge areas of chromosomes
containing genes that influence quantitative traits such as dormancy.
Having these markers narrows the scientists' search for dormancy genes
during the next stagegene cloning. "With cloned genes,"
Foley says, "it may be possible to find biochemical molecules they
produce that stop or start seed dormancy in response to environmental
Meanwhile, Anderson, Horvath, and Chao are using DNA chip technology,
also called microarrays, to observe gene activity in root buds of leafy
spurge. The computer-assisted technique involves placing DNA from thousands
of leafy spurge genes in individual spots on a single microscope slide.
Complementary copies of RNA from root buds are then labeled with dye--red
for growing buds and green for dormant ones. When placed on the slide,
the labeled copies find and stick to the gene they came from. By comparing
the amount of red and green on each gene, researchers can tell which
genes are turned on or off when dormant buds begin to grow.
This information could give rise to new, more effective herbicide formulations
orpreferablybiologically based methods of weed control.
For example, says Horvath, "If you can control dormancy genes,
you can cause the plant to grow in the fall when it shouldn't or keep
it from growing in the spring when it should. Then you're closer to
developing a sustainable solution to the problem."By David Elstein, and
Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Soil Resource Management (#202) and Crop
Protection and Quarantine (#304), two ARS National Programs described
on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Lori J. Wiles and Dale
L. Shaner are in the USDA-ARS Water
Management Research Unit, 3317 West Vine Drive, Fort Collins, CO
80523; phone (970) 491-8511, fax (970) 491-8247.
Michael E. Foley,
James V. Anderson,
Dave Horvath, and Wun
Chao are in the USDA-ARS Plant Science Research Unit, 1605 Albrecht
Blvd., Fargo, ND 58105; phone (701) 239-1250, fax (701) 239-1252.
"Dealing With Those Pesky Weed Seed Banks" was published
in the August
2003 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.