LABEX: A Successful Partnership
From Way Down South
This herd of Gyr, a tropical cattle
breed, is being
studied as part of
Labex research on cattle genetics.
Cristiano dos Santos takes the cows
for a health
inspection at the
Coronel Pacheco Experimental Station,
|Brazil proposed the Labex
program because the country saw itself and the United States as natural
partners in agricultural research, with many similar agricultural and
environmental problems to solve. Both are also world leaders in agricultural
research and technologythe United States particularly in temperate and
subtropical agriculture and Brazil more so in tropical agriculture.
Under way only since 1998, the Labex program, which is
coordinated by ARS' Office of
International Research Programs, is already paying off with significant
results. (See "Crossing the
Equator with Science," Agricultural Research, May 2000, pp.
Labex brings Brazilian scientists to ARS laboratories for
2- to 3-year terms and encourages other formal and informal exchanges between
the two research services.
EMBRAPA entomologist Marina
Castelo Branco collects
samples for a new pollen
reference library that
that attract insect pests.
|"This program is unique in
several important aspects," explains soil scientist Silvio Crestana, who served
as Labex coordinator from its inception until June 2001. "From the first, it
has been designed as a two-way street, with both countries benefitting from the
cooperation. The United States has as much to gain from the collaboration as
Brazil. Secondly, EMBRAPA committed itself to sending only senior scientists;
this is not a typical postdoc training program."
Crestana himself is a renowned soil scientist who stepped
down as director of EMBRAPA's National Instrumentation Laboratory to
participate in Labex. Besides being program coordinator, he also found time to
collaborate with hydrologist Walter J. Rawls, research leader with ARS'
Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to adapt
decision support software to estimate water retention in Brazilian soils from
soil composition data.
Precise information about water retention is essential for
predicting soil-erosion potential and even global climate monitoring. But when
ARS developed the original pedo-transfer functions (PTFs)the basic
algorithms for the softwarethe work was based on U.S. soils, which
cluster almost completely on the sand-loam side of the clay-sand-loam triangle
of soil types.
But Brazilian soils are mirror images of U.S. soil, with
almost all on the clay-loam side.
At EMBRAPAs Soils Research Center
in Rio, geographic
Ronaldo Pereira de Oliveira (right) and
research assistant José da Silva
de Souza (left) review soil-climate
data maps and charts obtained from
the Brazilian Amazon.
|Crestana and other
Brazilian scientists worked with ARS researchers to successfully adapt the PTFs
to deal with clay soils.
"In addition to the scientific use that will be made of the
PTFs, they will also help shape future agricultural policy for Brazil. With
solid soil-water retention information, we can look at areas of Brazil to see
which can be used to expand agriculture without harming the environment and
which are likely not good for farming," Crestana says.
Adapting the PTFs to clay soils has helped validate Rawls'
work within a larger context. It will also be directly useful for some places
in the United States, such as Mississippi, that have clay soil areas. But there
are much more widespread implications.
Plots at the Display of EMBRAPAs
Technologies, a field exposition
located at EMBRAPAs
in Brasilia, Brazil. The annual event
about the crop studies being performed.
|"We now understand that
soil represents a major carbon sink that may mitigate greenhouse gas effects.
This is an air quality and climate change issue that all of us are going to
need to deal with on a global basis," Crestana says. "So soil models that are
applicable to the whole globe are going to be essential."
With this global view, Labex has helped foster discussions
for an ARS-EMBRAPA-NASA program to establish data-collecting stations in Brazil
for an Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer satellite that can monitor the
water cycle on Earth's surface.
Planting By the Book
Water in the soil, or the lack of it, is also one of the
most limiting factors in Brazilian agricultural production, explains Luiz M.
Aguiar Sans, a soil scientist with EMBRAPA's National Maize and Sorghum
Research Center in Sete Lagoas, who helped adapt the ARS PTFs to Brazilian
soils used for growing corn.
We can predict how well a crop will do basically from soil
water retention information, including making recommendations on when to plant
for the best chance of a good harvest, Sans says.
At EMBRAPAs Soils Research
Jorge Luis Nunes Ramilo
examines a soil sample from
Soloteca, a collection of
15,000 samples representing
| In fact, in order for
Brazilian farmers to get agricultural bank loans, they must agree to plant
during the periods specified for their area in manuals that have been published
for each crop each year. In the past, the planting periods were based on only
three soil types for each county. But for next planting season, Sans and his
colleagues have come up with planting windows that are based on the PTFs and
the actual soil composition in thousands of specific locations.
"In past years, the planting interval manual for corn has
been about 60 pages long. The new book for this spring, which will be the first
based on the PTF work, is more than 800 pages and with smaller type," Sans
says. "A single small town now might list nine soil types and specific planting
windows for corn for each type."
Similar, more detailed manuals are being developed for
additional crops, such as soybeans, coffee, apples, wheat, and cotton.
A Ripple Effect
Labex soil research has also rippled out to involve
additional projects. "This is the true point of Labex. Just doing one project
together doesn't build very much beyond that one project; what we want is
lasting collaboration between scientists," Crestana points out.
Field assistants Carlos César
Célio de Almeida
discuss wheat experiments at
Maize and Sorghum
Research Center in Sete Lagoas.
| For example, Labex brought
together ARS and EMBRAPA researchers to test a combined penetrometer-moisture
probe that was recently developed in Brazil as a new device to measure soil
strength (resistance to penetration and compaction) and water content. This
will allow researchers to combine the effects of soil compaction and
composition on characteristics such as water retention.
"Soil penetration resistance, or compaction, is one of the
few remaining factors that are not available on precision agriculture field
maps. This probe could answer that," explains EMBRAPA soil scientist Carlos M.
P. Vaz. "Silvio Crestana suggested that ARS scientists had expertise to help
test this probe, and he helped put me in touch with them."
Precision agriculture has been
one of the Labex core issues from the outset. It was Brazilian agronomist
Ariovaldo Luchiari's focus when he was posted to the ARS Soil and Water
Conservation Research Unit in Lincoln, Nebraska, as part in the first wave of
Labex scientists. His research looked at water and nitrogen stresses in corn to
see if chlorophyll fluorescence could indicate when intervention by irrigating
and/or fertilizing would be truly worthwhile.
Cattle in Brazil, like this
Zebu bull, represent a different
from U.S. cattle and
could help scientists locate genes
traits like tick
resistance and heat tolerance.
| But the Labex connection
has grown far beyond that for Luchiari's ARS collaborator James S. Schepers.
Schepers is developing a remote sensing probe that can be
wheeled through fields as it measures changes in the light reflecting from
plant leaves as a way to determine the nutritional needs of a crop. He has been
working for several years with his EMBRAPA counterparts to refine the system.
"But it was hard to get his sensor carrier into many of
Brazil's rough areas," says mechanical engineer Ricardo Y. Inamasu with
EMBRAPA's National Agricultural Instrumentation Laboratory in São
Carlos. "So we developed Skinny Boy, a much lighter version of the
sensor carrier that is easier to take into fields. Building on Dr. Schepers'
work saved us several years of development time, and now we're pooling all the
datahis and oursto help advance everyone's work."
Research to preserve the
fragile red clay typical
of Brazil while
is providing new insights for
both ARS and EMBRAPA scientists.
| One major benefit of the
cooperation has been the opportunity to double data collection each year by
taking advantage of the reversal of seasons between the United States and
Brazil. "The Brazilian growing season is also much broader than it is in
Nebraska," says Schepers. "They've been able to plant corn sequentially every 2
or 3 weeks in Brazil, and then when we come down, they have corn ready in three
or four different growth stages for us to test our monitoring strategies. We
make modifications based on the results, and we're ready to start again when
we've got corn in Nebraska. We've been able to get 2 years of work out of one."
Not Just Soil and Plants
Labex partnerships have not focused only on plants and
soil. Senior veterinarian Terezinha Padilha is looking for resistance to
internal parasites in beef cattle at ARS' Immunology and Disease Resistance
Laboratory in Beltsville. She is sequencing genetic markers that could lead to
a scientific basis for breeding cattle with natural resistance.
Internal parasiteswormsare one of the major
problems facing the beef and dairy industries in both the United States and
Brazil. Worms cost these industries $2 billion a year in the United States
alone. Recently, worms have started to build resistance to commercial
anthelmintics, the agents used against them. The resistance is now being seen
in Brazilian beef cattle, although it has not been found in the United States
yet. But it is coming.
EMBRAPAs maize and sorghum
Sete Lagoas, State of Minas
| Working with ARS
microbiologist Louis C. Gasbarre in Beltsville, Padilha has already identified
more than 200 genetic markers in Angus cows. These markers could be related to
some ways by which cattle can naturally resist internal worm infestations,
lessening the need for anthelmintics. Now, she's matching these markers to
physical traits, which will tell her which of the markers are best associated
with the cattle's ability to deal with worms.
Similar research will also be done on Brazilian cattle.
"Brazil has some unique breeds that have to survive in the
Tropics, where there are no winters to create breaks in the parasite
population. By working together, we will all have access to data from a much
larger germplasm pool, which will significantly expand the potential for
finding the genes we want," Padilha says.
But like Crestana, who has fostered many soil-science
collaborations, Padilha's Labex work also extends beyond her own specific
project. She has been instrumental in bringing together several EMBRAPA and ARS
researchers whose work will be enhanced by informal and formal collaboration.
For example, in August 2001, Padilha arranged for three ARS
geneticistsCurtis P. Van Tassell and Tad S. Sonstegard with the Gene
Evaluation and Mapping Laboratory in Beltsville, and Eduardo Casas from the
U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, Nebraskato visit
EMBRAPA beef and dairy research centers and confer with their Brazilian
counterparts about coordinating research and sharing data so both groups
At a research farm in Valenca, Brazil, EMBRAPA is
establishing a special research herd by crossing Holsteins with a Brazilian
strain of Gyr, a tropical breed from India. Both phenotyping and genotyping
will be done for production traits in which both ARS and EMBRAPA are
interested, such as parasite resistance and carcass weight.
"Some of what the Brazilians are most interested in, and
for which their cattle are likely to have a genetic basis, are traits like heat
tolerance, which also has great relevance for subtropical areas in the States,
like Louisiana and Florida," says Casas. "The Brazilian researchers are very
open to suggestions about other traits to measure. I've suggested they measure
testes size and time to first ovulation to see if either of these traits
correlates with production traits we're measuring in our cattle. This is a
great chance to get data on totally different breeds than we have."
"In the end, if an allele for a genetic marker is
associated with a trait in the Brazilian herd, then I can look to see whether
this allele is present in our herds and vice versa," Casas explains. "If an
allele associated with an economically important trait is present in one herd
but not the other, we can use genetic markers to try to incorporate it through
a crossbreeding scheme."
Artificial insemination has also narrowed the genetic basis
for U.S. herds, which makes the opportunity to look at germplasm from other
sources even more important, Casas adds.
The hunt for genetic markers for economically important
traits will also involve EMBRAPA's Southeastern Cattle Research Center in
São Carlos, Brazil.
"Several joint projects are in the plans," says animal
biotechnologist Luciana C. de Almeida Regitano. "On the first level, we're
going to validate genetic markers that ARS has found in the herd at MARC for
important traits. On the second level, we're looking for new markers associated
with the same traits in our Canchim and Nelore crossbred herds."
Looking for markers for tick resistance, muscling, and
months to slaughter weight is also planned.
One immediate advantage of collaborating, Regitano points
out, is that just getting a big enough population sample for good statistical
analysis is very expensive with large animals like cows, so pooling data means
many more numbers for everyone without asking for a budget increase.
"These types of collaborations are what makes programs like
Labex so important," Padilha adds. "No one research agency will have the
resources or the budget to do everything that needs to be done. Two advanced
organizations like EMBRAPA and ARS should collaborate rather than each
reinventing the wheel. But the biggest advantage is really about putting our
brains together. That's where the greatest gains will come from."
Insects Cross the Equator
Another focus for Labex is integrated pest management
(IPM). Brazilian entomologist Miguel Borges spent his Labex assignment at ARS'
Insect Chemical Ecology Laboratory in Beltsville, seeking biocontrols for stink
bugs, a major soybean pest in both Brazil and the United States.
Borges and his ARS collaborator, entomologist Jeffrey R.
Aldrich, identified a better pheromone blend to attract neotropical brown stink
bugs. Such pheromone identification is essential to building traps that can be
used to monitor fields for the appearance of specific insect pests. Precise
monitoring allows pesticide use to be narrowly targeted, helping the
environment and the farmer's bottom line.
Borges and Aldrich also developed an effective trap design
to go with their pheromone lure. They are currently seeking commercial
producers for the trap system. "Jeff is talking with companies in the United
States, and I'm talking to companies in Brazil; or one company could sell in
both countries," says Borges.
One of their research results is confounding the pair. They
looked at U.S. and Brazilian strains of Telenomus podisi, a wasp that
parasitizes stink bug eggs, in hopes of using it as a biocontrol. Two leading
taxonomists in the United States and Argentina both proclaimed the strains to
be the same species. But the two entomologists cannot get the two species to
successfully crossbreedwhich is the definition of separate
speciesnor do the two wasps always react to the same species of stink bug
from the other continent.
"It opens up all sorts of possibilities for what may be
most effective for each country," Borges says.
Collaboration between Aldrich and Borges isn't over just
because Borges is back at EMBRAPA's Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Center
in Brasilia. They are already hard at work with a colleague in Italy, setting
up parallel real-time video web sites in each of the three countries to monitor
insect behavior in soybean fields.
"Everyone will be able to see what is happening at any of
the sites at any time. The amount of data that will be available at all times
of the year will be amazing," Borges says.
Labex appears to have a bright future. EMBRAPA has already
selected the next generation of Brazilian scientists who will come to ARS. Food
safety and new uses for agricultural commodities have been additional focuses.
"We see Labex as a new model for international
cooperation," says Alberto D. Portugal, EMBRAPA's director-president. "We see
so much opportunity for synergy between two of the largest and most advanced
agricultural research agencies in the world."By J. Kim Kaplan,
Agricultural Research Service Information Staff
To reach any of the people mentioned in this article,
contact Kim Kaplan, USDA-ARS
Information Staff, 5601 Sunnyside
Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705; phone 301-504-1637, fax (301) 504-1648.
"LABEX: A Successful Partnership From Way Down South" was
published in the December 2001
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.