An east-side view of the
Henry A. Wallace Beltsville
Agricultural Research Center,
circa 1994. The Dairy Research
Facility is visible in the middle
of the photo.
|When the top 10 milestones for the
past 100 years of plant pest and pathogen research were published by the
American Phytopathological Society, two were work from scientists at the Henry
A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC), for discovery of new
forms of life.
Sixth on the list was the 1972 discovery by BARC plant pathologist Robert E.
Davis of spiroplasmas, mycoplasma-like life forms with no cell wall and with
one of the smallest genomes of any living organism. Spiroplasmas have been
found to be responsible for many plant diseases.
Theodor Diener (left),
discoverer of the viroid,
and Robert Owens examine
an image from a viroid-
| The other entry on the top-10 list
was the discovery at BARC of a second new form of lifethe viroid. In
1971, BARC plant pathologist Theodor O. Diener uncovered these unique,
low-molecular-weight, pathogenic, RNA-only molecules, which can barely be seen
with an electron microscope. Like a virus, a viroid invades cells and hijacks
their reproductive mechanism.
But when Diener announced his discovery, he was overturning scientific dogma
that held that an organism with no proteins couldn't replicate itself. And an
entity as small as the potato spindle tuber viroidat only 130,000
daltonswasn't supposed to be able to infect anything, even a potato.
Diener wasn't all that impressed by scientific dogma. But it took 6 painstaking
years for him to amass the evidence to prove that the viroid life form exists.
Having accomplishments make such top-10 lists is pretty much all in a day's
work for BARC researchers. The 6,700-acre center, which lies only about 30
minutes from the White House, is the largest agricultural research facility in
the world. Its history of accomplishments reads like a who's who and what's
what of agriculture and science.
"When you look at all the significant research for farmers and consumers
that has come from BARC scientists, these research milestones are almost more
typical than remarkable," explains BARC Director Phyllis Johnson.
Malformed potatoes resulting from
infection with the potato spindle
|Right From the Start
BARC recently marked its 90th anniversary. In 1910, the U.S. Department of
Agriculture purchased the 475-acre Walnut Grange plantation in Beltsville,
Maryland, to turn into a research facility.
The land, originally owned by Thomas Snowden in the late 1700s, was given to
his daughter Mary when she married John Herbert of Walnut Grange, Virginia. A
Snowden family house built around 1790 still stands. In 1911, the first dairy
cows and other livestock arrived to become the nucleus of USDA's animal
husbandry research activities.
Just a few years later, in 1915, Sewell Wright, who would become known as one
of the three fathers of population genetics, signed on at BARC as a senior
animal husbander, his first job after receiving a doctorate. Wright's
assignment to clarify the roles of inbreeding and selection in livestock
breeding led to the 1921 publication of his classic series of papers,
Systems of Mating, which still provide the theoretical foundation for
plant and animal breeding decisions.
The Sarah van Fleet
rose, developed by
geneticist Walter van
Fleet specifically for
| It was also at BARC that Wright
first proposed the variable he designated as F to express an inbreeding
coefficient, the mathematical correlation that measures the decrease in
heterozygosis from that in the foundation stock. Years later, when Wright was
speaking at the First International Congress in Quantitative Genetics at Iowa
State University, a student asked him if the F coefficient was named in
honor of R.A. Fisher, one of the other fathers of population genetics, who
often differed with Wright's conclusions. It suddenly got very quiet in the
room, according to those present, and Wright, always the gentleman, quietly
replied, "No, F was just the next letter available."
Other BARC Milestones
- Discovered that flowering in many plants is controlled by changes in
day-length, a concept called photoperiodism.
- Dairy herd improvement program began keeping detailed records of milk
output and other characteristics used to decide breeding choices. During the
first 10 years, this led to an average yearly increase in milk production per
cow from 5,354 to 6,637 pounds. Today, milk production of cows has increased
more than fourfold as a result of this program.
- Foundation for new, highly effective meat-inspection control measures was
laid when it was found that trichinae, the organisms causing trichinosis, could
be significantly reduced in pork by proper refrigeration.
Considered one of the
founders of population
genetics, Sewell Wright
pioneered studies that
led to dramatic improvements
in domestic livestock.
|It seems so apparent today that beef
and dairy cows are the same animal. But it was landmark studies conducted at
BARC in the 1920s comparing the anatomy, skeletal structure, mammary glands,
and blood circulatory system of these two highly specialized animals that
finally proved scientifically that both types were the same animal, despite
wide variations in appearance.
Consumers also gained a major benefit when BARC researcher Lore A. Rogers and
his colleagues solved a serious food problemthe short shelf life of
butter. They demonstrated that the traditional use of sour ripened cream in
buttermaking caused a shortened shelf life compared to using sweet cream. This
led to a major change in butter processing, one that is still used today.
This decade also started a tradition of developing significant floral, nursery,
and landscape plants. Geneticist Walter van Fleet developed the first roses
specifically for American gardens. Unlike European roses, van Fleet's were bred
for vigorous growth, pest and disease resistance, and heat and cold tolerance.
In 1926, he released the Sarah van Fleet rose, which remains one of the most
reliable rugosa roses for the South. He also released the country's first
multi-disease-resistant shrub rose, named Mary Wallace for the daughter of
Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace (19211924). In 1928, this rose
was voted the most popular rose in the United States, and it is still being
sold in garden centers.
While Secretary of Agriculture,
1932 to 1940, Henry A. Wallace
oversaw major expansion of BARC.
|Other BARC Milestones 19201929
The Big Expansion
Wallace's grandson Henry A. Wallace, who became Secretary of Agriculture
himself under President Roosevelt (19321940), was also involved with
He was known for his commitment to the idea that agricultural research was
critical to the country's continued success. While Secretary, he even spent
weekends doing research in BARC's greenhouses.
- The meat-type hog was developed, which led to today's leaner animals. At
the same time, BARC developed a system of producing pork with a minimum of feed
and labor, making hog raising more economical and efficient.
- High-laying strains of Rhode Island Red and Single-Comb White Leghorn
chickens, which laid especially large and well-shaped eggs, were developed.
BARC researchers also determined the precise amount of feed needed to produce
one dozen eggs, giving farmers better control of production costs.
- Found first scientific evidence of the role vitamin A plays in maintaining
DEET, a strong insect repellant
discovered by BARC researchers,
is in many commercial products.
|At the same time, the Department of
Defense, with somewhat of an eye toward the coming of World War II, was seeking
a new headquarters site. Their choice was the Arlington Farms (Virginia)
Experiment Station, where exotic plants brought back by USDA plant explorers
were often raised. New plant research was transferred to Beltsville, and
Arlington Farms is now the south parking lot of the Pentagon.
Wallace oversaw a major expansion of BARC. He brought in the Civilian
Conservation Corps (CCC) to construct 21 buildings and 79 miles of roads,
trails, and bridges. The CCC also put up 242 miles of fences; laid 126 miles of
water, sewage, and drainage pipes; and landscaped 500 acres, moving 78,000
trees and shrubs. A centerpiece of the CCC constructionthe Log
Lodgeis still active today as the ARS National Visitor Center. This
expansion continued, and by 1962, 25 percent of all USDA research scientists
were working at BARC.
The Beltsville Small White
turkey was bred to have
lots of breast meat.
| To honor his contributions to the
expansion and his support of agricultural research, Henry A. Wallace's name was
added to the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center on June 6, 2000.
World War II and the 1940s put new demands on BARC. Insects and the diseases
they carry have always accounted for too many casualties during wartime. When
BARC researchers discovered a whole new group of pesticides, including DEET and
Rotenone, that could be used to protect people, hundreds of thousands of
soldiers were kept safe from ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, and fleas.
Other BARC contributions to the war effort included developing mildew- and
rot-proof fabrics and bandages, inventing better methods for dehydrating meat
for lend-lease and military use, and publishing the first daily human nutrition
guide, which was used to develop K rations.
Entomologist Edward F.
Knipling pioneered research
to develop pesticide-free
ways to eliminate screwworms.
|Other BARC Milestones 19301939
Then BARC research shifted from K rations to turkey holiday dinners. After
World War II, the turkey industry was in deep decline because the birds tended
to be too big for smaller families and even more important, the day's smaller
refrigerators and ovens. BARC scientists developed a smaller, meatier type of
bird. By the late 1940s, the Beltsville Small White turkey, which averaged 8 to
10 pounds with a high percentage of breast meat, began showing up in stores.
Today, this turkey line is part of the pedigree of nearly every turkey sold in
the United States.
- Vitamin B12 was shown to be essential for egg production and the
survival of newly hatched chicks. This discovery alone increased hatchability
of eggs from 65 percent to the current 85 percent, an annual increase of 600
million eggs with a value of more than $60 million.
- Phenothiazine, an effective and economical drug for removing many worm
parasites from horses, swine, sheep, goats, and poultry, was discovered, saving
millions of dollars and untold harm to livestock.
- A vaccine was developed to prevent hog cholera, a disease costing producers
more than $100 million a year.
BARC agricultural engineer
Karl Norris developed near-
infrared spectroscopy in
1963. Here, in May 1981,
Norris prepares to analyze
fiber content of a grain
sample with the near-
infrared equipment behind him.
| In the 1950s came one of BARC's many
landmark accomplishments: the discovery and isolation of phytochrome, the
biological pigment that controls flowering and many other processes.
In 1957, BARC created two Pioneering Research Laboratoriesone around
botanist Harry Borthwick and the other around Sterling B. Hendricks, giving
them freedom to delve into any research problem of scientific interest. The
third component was the formation of the Instrumentation Research Laboratory at
BARC by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, under the direction of
agricultural engineer Karl Norris. The three men formed an informal team to
find the substance that controls photoperiodism.
After several unsuccessful approaches, in 1959, Hendricks came to Norris's lab
with dark-grown turnip seedlings. "Working in the dark with a dim green
light source, we packed plant tissue from the seedlings into the sample cell
and measured the absorption spectrum," Norris wrote in Agricultural
Research ("Groping for the Master Switch," September 1991, p. 2).
Microbiologist Harry Danforth
and other scientists laid
groundwork for development
of animal disease vaccines,
including one for chicken
|Then Hendricks, a notable mountain
climber, took the sample cell and climbed up on the lab bench to hold the
sample close to a fluorescent light to irradiate it with red light. The red
light changed the absorption spectrum. Then they irradiated the sample with a
light masked to block the red light waves, but not the far red. The absorption
spectrum changed back. The team had reversibility and the key to identifying
the control agent. They soon isolated the pigment, which would be named
Hendricks also came up with an elegant solution to overcome a major equipment
problemfinding a light powerful enough to irradiate the plants as they
grew. For $50, he obtained a huge, 10-kilowatt carbon arc-light "cadged
from a Baltimore movie theater, with memories of pulchritude," Hendricks
Other BARC Milestones
- 2,4-D was developed as a selective herbicide. It remains one of the most
effective and safest broadleaf herbicides available and is one of the major
components of today's lawn herbicides.
- Poultry diets were devised that cut from 20 pounds to only 9 pounds the
amount of feed needed to produce a 2.5-pound broiler.
- Vermiculite, a micalike industrial mineral, was first used as a soil-less
medium for producing fresh produce where suitable soil is unavailable. It is
still an important component of all modern media for growing potted plants.
New Guinea impatiens were released
by BARC in the 1970s. Today, they
range in color from bright orange,
yellow, and vermilion to soft shades
| Some BARC accomplishments don't
directly benefit farmers or consumers but, rather, change how research is done.
During the 1960s, BARC researchers developed the first computerized lab
instrument, a computer-controlled near-infrared spectrophotometer. This
noninvasive technique can be used to measure traits like protein, oil, starch,
and moisture content in grain and oilseed; detect hollow heart in potatoes or
water core of apples; or measure fat concentration in milk. Among other
advances, this has given rise today to a $50- to $100-million-a-year industry
that measures grain quality for growers and processors.
Other BARC Milestones
- New plants were released, including Roma tomatoes, Topcrop and Tendercrop
beans, the first multiple-disease-resistant strawberry Surecrop, the first
tetraploid Easter and Asiatic lilies, which showed the possibilities of
polyploidy in lilies, and Merion, a more stress-tolerant Kentucky bluegrass.
- Demonstrated that there is variation in the dietary availability of
carotenes in different foods.
In the 1960s, Max Paape and
other BARC scientists developed
mastitis-control procedures that
are still in use today.
|The decade also saw BARC's
discoveries of new, safer insect controls based on isolating natural chemicals,
such as insect growth regulators.
You could call the 1970s the decade of disease eradication for BARC. In
addition to the inroads the sterile male insect release technique was making in
screwworm populations, BARC research led to the eradication of Venezuelan
equine encephalomyelitis in 1971, sheep scabies in 1973, and Newcastle disease
Other BARC Milestones
- Demonstrated that supplementing vitamin A with zinc helps prevent blindness
in humans and showed the importance of dietary chromium and its relationship to
blood sugar management.
- Developed procedures that are still used around the world to control
mastitis, an udder disease that costs U.S. dairy producers $2 billion annually.
Control of this disease allowed milk to be bacteria- and antibiotic-free.
ARS animal physiologist Lawrence
Johnson checks swine sperm cells
on a video monitor to evaluate
their motility, a procedure that
precedes laser X-Y sperm separation.
|The 1970s also saw the introduction
of one of today's top ornamentalsNew Guinea impatiens. They were first
brought back to BARC almost as an afterthought from a 1970 plant exploration
trip to New Guinea. No one is really sure how this impatiens even made the list
of plants to be gathered on that trip. The flowers had enjoyed a brief but
intense popularity in the 1890s, but by the early 1900s, susceptibility to
begonia mites destroyed the plant's usefulness.
Plants for erosion control and with anticancer properties and rhododendrons of
new colors, shapes, and sizes were all on the collecting list. Harold Winters,
who was in BARC's New Crops Research Branch and leader of the New Guinea trip,
recalled impatiens were added to the list as a result of letters between
himself and plant breeder Claude Hope, who developed African impatiens into the
most popular U.S. shade bedding plants. But Hope denies suggesting impatiens as
Regardless of who originally wanted them, once the plants were brought back,
BARC scientists performed several years of basic research to learn what growing
conditions New Guinea impatiens needed and other important information. The 23
impatiens released by BARC were the foundation on which other breeders would
build a giant flower industry.
Cryopreservation of swine embryos
was developed in the 1990s. Above,
animal physiologist John Dobrinsky
(right) and research associate
Charles Long examine an embryo
with a confocal microscope.
|Other BARC Milestones 19701979
With the 1980s, genetic engineering and other biotechnology began to make an
impact at BARC and other research laboratories. BARC scientists produced the
first transgenic pigsanimals containing foreign genes from other
specieswith the goal of producing animals with less fat and more muscle
or marketable meat.
At the other end of the spectrum, BARC also co-chaired the USDA task force that
published Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. This report was
a milestone that marked a shift in USDA toward more sustainable agriculture and
stimulated subsequent research, education, and extension activities by the
- Disease-resistant germplasms of corn, wheat, sugar beet, alfalfa, and
barley developed at BARC were released, contributing to the "green
- The Beltsville Aerated Pile Method for composting sewage sludge, currently
called biosolids, was developed. Today, the method is used by more than 160
|| Other BARC Milestones 19801989
The more recent a research discovery, the harder it is to assess its long-term
significance. Another invention or discovery could supplant the original
finding or cast it in a less important light in the long run. But several BARC
accomplishments from the 1990s can already be marked as being of major
For one, animal physiologist Lawrence A. Johnson and his colleagues developed
technology to separate X- and Y-bearing animal sperm to allow sex selection of
offspring. In one experiment to test the effectiveness of the technology, eight
litters of pigs were born at BARC using sorted X-chromosome sperm. Ninety-eight
percent of the pigs were female. Three control litters produced with unsexed
sperm had equal numbers of male and female piglets.
As it would be for many livestock producers, sex selection of offspring is a
great boon for dairy farmers. "Normally a farmer would use the top 40
percent of his herd to reproduce enough female replacement calves. With sexed
semen, a farmer would only need to use the top 20 percent," Johnson
Other BARC Milestones
- Vaccine was developed against coccidiosis in chickens, which causes annual
losses of $400 million in the United States.
- Fast, accurate tests, based on antibody testing technology, were developed
for trichinosis in pigs; for anaplasmosis, a costly parasitic disease in
cattle; and for plant viruses and viroids.
- Rodent studies showed 100-percent mortality from heart problems if the
animals were fed high-sugar, copper-deficient diets. Heart disease is the
number-one cause of death in people in the United States.
The next 90 years look as bright as the past 90 for BARC. Researchers continue
to take advantage of the diversity of disciplines in close proximity at the
center. For example, a plant physiologist was recently shifted to the
Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center to enhance work on how to grow
plants for their phytonutrient content. New technologies, new discoveries, and
new knowledge about all aspects of agriculturefrom science to farmer to
industry to consumercan be expected from Beltsville.By J. Kim Kaplan, ARS.
More information about BARC's history can be found at
- Ultra-low-temperature storagecryopreservationof swine embryos
was developed, enabling unprecedented global transport of embryos.
- SoilGard, the first biocontrol agent for soilborne diseases, was developed.
- Demonstrated that host nutritional status can influence the pathogenicity
of a human viral pathogen.
"Beltsville Agricultural Research Center"
was published in the October 2001
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.