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Technician Teresa Koppin checks sucrose content of a beet using a near-infrared instrument.  Click the image for more information about it.

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Toward a Better Sugar Beet

By Don Comis
April 12, 2004

A team of Agricultural Research Service scientists in East Lansing, Mich., is well on its way toward developing sugar beets with improved seedling vigor, higher sugar content, enhanced disease resistance and other valuable traits.

J. Mitchell McGrath, a geneticist at the ARS Sugar Beet and Bean Research Unit in East Lansing, leads the team, which has given the Beet Sugar Development Foundation of Denver, Colo., a simple test for seedling emergence. The emergence test has already led to commercial varieties with higher germination rates.

The team also discovered two possible genetic markers for seedling vigor, which is the ability of a seed to sprout and of the seedling to survive in adverse environments.

Regarding high sugar content, the researchers found a possible marker to predict beets with this trait when they're about seven weeks old, instead of waiting for full growth in about 25 weeks. McGrath and colleagues theorize that beets with the highest sugar content aren't better at storing sugar, just better at keeping the concentration high by letting less water in.

The scientists are also on the trail of the genes for resistance to two major seedling disease agents: Aphanomyces and Rhizoctonia. Disease is the main threat to a seedling's survival in its first month. The researchers have developed a test for Aphanomyces seedling disease and used it to show there are two genes for resistance. They're also examining sugar beet germplasm to develop ideas that could help in breeding for resistance to Rhizoctonia seedling disease.

Read more about the research in the April issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

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