ARS Helps Science Flourish at 1890 Schools
Bold ideas were brewing at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as America headed into the last decade of the l9th century.
Although the department had been created 28 years earlier by Abraham Lincoln, the year 1890 found USDA leaders still savoring the department's elevation to cabinet status only I year before.
At USDA's helm was agriculture secretary Jeremiah McLain Rusk, a Wisconsin farmer, Civil War hero, and strong believer in getting information to farmers. It was Rusk who pushed for the publication of informative Farmers Bulletins, first by USDA's Office of Experiment Stations and later by the department itself.
Also in 1890, there was an update to the 1862 Morrill Act, which provided for the establishment of at least one land-grant college in each state.
Although the Morrill Act of 1890 was passed to further fund those 1862 institutions, it contained a history-making provision: that states practicing racial discrimination in admissions to 1862 schools could not share in the additional funds provided by the 1890 act.
In many states, the direct result of that provision was the creation of separate land-grant schools for blacks. Several southern states either established a new school or took over an existing institution and designated it as a land-grant institution.
Seventeen institutions are now officially recognized as1890 Schools—one in each of 15 states, plus two in Alabama. But 12 of these institutions actually predate the Morrill Act of 1890, and not all were established by their state legislatures.
For example, the first of the 1890 Schools, Lincoln University at Jefferson City, Missouri, was actually founded in 1866 with funds from Civil War veterans.
Another, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, was founded in 1886 by the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Research has always been part of the mission of 1890 Schools, but fulfillment of that mission was often hindered by lack of money. Research funds usually went to the 1862 schools, although there were exceptions—the branch experiment station established in 1887 at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, for example, and the experiment station established at Tuskegee University in 1897.
As the 100th anniversary of the 1890 Morrill Act neared, the research outlook at the historically black land grant institutions was considerably brighter. But there were those in USDA who felt the department could do more to help.
“In 1988, USDA began what is called the USDA/1890 Initiative,” recalls Korona I. Prince, special programs manager in the office of Agricultural Research Service administrator R. Dean Plowman.
“The sole purpose of that initiative was to encourage a partnership between USDA and the 1890 Schools. It was initiated by USDA, beginning with a conference in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1988.”
From that Nashville meeting, attended by 1890 School deans and presidents as well as USDA officials, was born a list of 17 action items.
These included sending USDA personnel—such as ARS researchers— to 1890 campuses to work on specific projects; establishment of USDA liaisons on each of the campuses; student outreach programs; and a Capacity-Building Grants Program.
“Under the latter program, schools submit grant proposals for important areas of research they'd like to do,” says William H. Tallent, ARS assistant administrator. “The aim is for them to build their institutions' capacity to contribute to science.”
Congress appropriates the money, which is administered by the Office of Higher Education Programs in USDA's Cooperative State Research Service.
In the first year of the program, which began October 1, 1989 (fiscal year 1990), Congress appropriated $5 million; 4 years later, for FY 1993, it was $10.25 million.
Each grant must have a cooperating USDA agency. Of the 22 research grants approved for funding in 1992, ARS was one of the cooperating agencies on 18, Tallent notes. “We work on everything from new crops to flavor components of goat's milk.”
But Tallent points out the capacity-building grants—and even the 1890 Initiative of 1989—were not ARS' first encounter with 1890 Schools.
“We've had programs for years to encourage our scientists to work with 1890 Schools,” he says. “Before the Capacity-Building Grants Program began, ARS had its own program, with about $500,000 in annual funding. We'd either conduct a research project with an 1890 School or sponsor a postdoctoral researcher on an 1890 campus.”
Nor has ARS involvement been limited to the 17 traditional 1890 Schools.
“ARS has worked with many of the historically black colleges and universities—there's a total of 117 nationwide, including the Virgin Islands—since the 1970's,” adds Prince.
Special Outreach Projects
Student outreach is another area where ARS involvement predates the 1890 Initiative of 1989.
In the Career Enrichment Program, dating to the early 1980's, high school seniors bound for Delaware State College at Dover first spend a summer working in ARS laboratories. That program is jointly sponsored by ARS and other USDA agencies working with the Delaware Cooperative Extension Service.
A similar program called BAYOU—for “Beginning Agriculture Youth Opportunity Unit”—involves not only incoming freshmen, but also college science students at Southern University at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In other outreach programs, students from the Chicago HighSchool for Agricultural Sciences spend the summer on the campuses of Kentucky State and Tennessee State Universities and work in ARS labs. ARS and USDA's Soil Conservation Service fund that program.
“We do all this because we realize these students are our future,” says Prince. “We need to get good students into agricultural sciences, and this is a way to do it.”
In November l992, USDA agency heads and 1890 institution presidents met to set new goals for the 1890 Initiative.
One of these was to establish centers of excellence—concentrations of expertise on particular agricultural subjects at each of the 1890 Schools.
“Within the next decade, we'd like to have a center of excellence on each of the 1890 campuses,” says Tallent. “The universities tell us what they'd like to have a center on, and the various USDA agencies have the option to help.
“ARS is working with four or five proposals, seeking about half a million dollars for each. USDA will decide how many to go with overall and go to Congress for funding. The first year that may be funded is FY 1994.”
Nursery Crop Production
Among the proposals supported by ARS is the creation of a nursery crop production center at McMinnville, Tennessee, as part of Tennessee State University.
“Tennessee State acquired 87 acres of land at McMinnville in the center of the nursery industry there,” recalls Howard J. Brooks, ARS associate deputy administrator for plant sciences. “Nursery crops are a big business in Tennessee; producers there grow most of the ornamental trees and shrubs for the eastern seaboard.”
The Tennessee State proposal calls for sending selected plant material from ARS' National Arboretum breeding program at Washington, D.C., to McMinnville.
“The arboretum, in its breeding program with landscape shrubs and trees, might have 10,000 seedlings,” Brooks explains. “They would select several that look the best and send them to the center of excellence, where nursery specialists could help select the very best and recommend commercial production.
“ARS is helping with the design of a new laboratory and office building,” he continues. “We're also working closely with Tennessee State personnel on the concept of how the program might be expanded over the years to include ARS personnel actually doing research at McMinnville.”
Separate from the centers of excellence proposal, ARS is already in the second year of a 3-year cooperative agreement with Tennessee State to develop a plan for evaluating nursery plant material in the area, Brooks notes.
“Our intent is to serve the entire U.S. nursery industry,” he says. “If a new landscape plant would grow in Tennessee, it probably would do well in other states with similar climates.”
Rice Growing Without Flooding
Another example of the ongoing association between ARS and 1890 Schools is the work done at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. It involves evaluation of rice germplasm to find lines that would perform well in nonflooded fields—just like corn or wheat.
“In 1987, ARS had a pilot program for competitive grants for research with 1890 Schools,” says Robert H. Dilday, a geneticist with the ARS Rice Production and Weed Control Research Unit at Stuttgart, Arkansas.
“Mazo Price of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff worked with me on a proposal for cooperative research to develop techniques for evaluating rice germplasm for drought tolerance. That project was subsequently funded for 1987 and 1988.”
While the typical image of rice is that of lush green plants growing in flooded fields, Dilday says rising cost and declining availability of irrigation water may push some rice crops of the future to dry land in certain areas of the United States.
“We've made rice into a very-high-input crop because it yields more if fields are flooded, plus flooding the fields is a very good way to control major dryland weeds such as morningglory,” he says. “But the fact is that 47 percent of the rice grown in the world is under natural rainfed conditions.”
Price, Dilday's partner in the project, is now dean of the university's School of Agriculture and Home Economics, as well as director of 1890 research and extension programs at the university. But he spent the late 1970's and early 1980's in eastern Africa, working to develop varieties of crops such as pigeon peas, sorghum, and millet that could stand the trials of low soil fertility and scarce water.
“When I came back to the United States in 1986, I had the idea that we really needed to work on drought-tolerant crops in this country,” says Price. “We have water now, but the time may come when it is lacking.”
In 1987, with their funds from ARS, Dilday and Price evaluated 50 rice germplasm lines that had previously evidenced some drought tolerance or better use of available water. Some of the lines came from the International Rice Research Institute at Los Baños in the Philippines; others, from the U.S. rice collection containing more than 16,000 varieties from 99 countries.
The researchers used a long-known technique called root pulling resistance, which correlates the difficulty in pulling a plant from the ground with its degree of root development.
“We tried to relate root development to drought tolerance,” says Dilday. “There is a relationship, but there are other factors as well—leaf size, leaf shape, the opening and closing of the leaf's stomates. We were the first to show this relationship in dry-seeded rice.”
In the second year of the project, Dilday and Priceused an Image Capture and Analysis System at the university to reveal differences in the visual image of drought-tolerant versus drought-sensitive rice lines.
“We've had this system for several years,” says Price. “You take a video picture of plants in the field, bring it back to the lab, and hook it to a computer.
“On the basis of leaf color and factors such as the amount of light absorbed and reflected, this system can provide information on the plants' photosynthetic activity, as well as tell whether they have disease damage or other conditions.
“Once we get this system perfected in terms of screening for drought tolerance, it will be a much faster test than root pulling resistance. “
A Mystery Protozoan
Another ARS/1890 project involves the ARS Protozoan Diseases Laboratory at Beltsville, Maryland.
When word went out in 1987 that the agency had research funds available for cooperative work with 1890 Schools, ARS microbiologist Michael D. Ruff saw an opportunity to take a crack at solving a longtime mystery.
“There are nine species of single-celled organisms called coccidia that are listed as affecting chickens and causing a disease called coccidiosis,” explains Ruff. “But one of them, Eimiria mivati, may not really exist.”
Coccidiosis is bad news for poultry farmers, costing them some $300 million a year—$200 million in lost production, because birds don't grow as they should, and another $100 million for medications.
“When a new drug against coccidiosis comes along, the Food and Drug Administration requires that it be cleared against all the common species of coccidia, including E. mivati,” explains Ruff. “But if mivati doesn't really exist, that's one less test to do.
On the other hand, Ruff adds, “if mivati does exist and we don't include protection against it in vaccines, it could have a significant impact on the poultry industry.
“Coccidia do not 'cross-protect.' If you vaccinate a chicken against one species of coccidia, the chicken's immune system protects it only from that species of coccidia—not against all the others as well.”
When the ARS cooperative funds became available, Ruff joined forces with Steve Fitz-Coy of the poultry diseases department at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore.
“Steve was at Princess Anne, Maryland, and had ready access to commercial poultry operations,” explains Ruff. “He'd get cultures of coccidiosis, purify them, and send them to us for testing. He looked at several hundred cultures and from those, found two or three to send to us that looked promising.”
Once the cultures arrived at Beltsville, Ruff's lab did a variety of tests to determine if the culprit was mivati. For example, chickens were vaccinated against other species of coccidia, then infected with a possible E. mivati. Since the vaccination would protect against species other than mivati, the researchers knew that if the infection, stymied by the vaccination, failed to run its course, the culture in hand was not mivati.
“We've gotten several cultures that look close to what I knew as mivati 20 years ago,” says Ruff. “I think there definitely was an E. mivatiat one time.”
Fitz-Coy has since left the UM Eastern Shore faculty to work for American Cyanamid, but the project is continuing, Ruff reports.
“People in the field are sending us cultures to check,” he says. “This is a good example of why we have cooperative work with 1890 Schools— we couldn't have started this as easily without Fitz-Coy sending us those original isolates.”
Dairy Goats and Milk Products
“One aspect of the ARS initiative in 1987 was to establish a series of postdoctoral positions at 1890 Schools, working on campus and collaborating with ARS scientists,” recalls Harold M. Farrell, Jr., a supervisory research chemist in the Biochemistry and Chemistry of Lipids Laboratory at the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Alden Reine, who was then director of research at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, contacted John Cherry, the ERRC director. Prairie View had established an International Dairy Goat Center, wanting to carve a research niche for itself in dairy goat work. Reine knew that back in the 1980's, we had done some dairy goat milk research here.”
Prairie View and ERRC later entered a cooperative research agreement and hired a postdoctoral researcher, Adela Mora-Gutierrez, who began working at Prairie View in May 1989 on casein in dairy goat milk.
“Casein is a major protein in milk,” Farrel1 explains. “It keeps phosphate and calcium in the milk soluble so they can pass out of the udder. Without it, they'd become crystals—and that wouldn't make milk a very nice product to drink.”
The scientific community had long held that casein in goat's milk and cow's milk was basically the same, with the exception of one protein missing from goat's milk.
Farrell says French scientists in recent years discovered that the elusive protein not only was present in goat's milk after all, but could differ from goat to goat in its ability to carry calcium and phosphate.
The ARS research team—Mora-Gutierrez at Prairie View, Farrell and others at Philadelphia—found that virtually all goats differ in their levels of alpha casein, the best of four major caseins in ability to carry calcium and phosphate.
“We found one goat that had about 30 percent as much as a cow,” Farrell notes.
Much to their surprise, the scientists found that a goat could havevery low alpha casein levels and still boast high calcium content in its milk.
“Also, we thought that if a goat's milk was missing alpha casein, which is great at carrying calcium, and you added calcium to the milk, it would just clot up,” Farrell recalls. “But surprisingly, the exact reverse occurred. In processing, the high-alpha milk was more likely to clot up.”
When Mora-Gutierrez's 2 years as an ARS postdoc wound up in 1991, she was hired immediately to continue research at Prairie View, much to the delight of her ARS co-workers.
Although the Prairie View research has uncovered surprising new information about goat's milk composition and physical properties, the ARS/1890 collaboration there promises to yield even greater long-term rewards, says Mora-Gutierrez.
“I'll be teaching food chemistry, starting in 1993, as part of a new curriculum option in food science and nutrition at Prairie View. Our students will be able to say, “We have a research scientist right here on campus, and she is our professor.” It will give motivation for our students to consider careers in agricultural research.”
At the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Mazo Price sees the ARS cooperation with 1890 Schools as an enrichment process for the universities.
“When we can draw on expertise like Robert Dilday's and transfer that knowledge to the university, it tremendously enhances our own ability to do research,” he says.
“And I say if you enhance the research capability of a scientist, you make a better teacher of that scientist, so the benefits are passed on to our students. The students can come to the field and see the type of research we're doing, read the publications, and even participate in the research.
“Between us and ARS, I would argue that this type of cooperative effort benefits us more because it enhances significantly our capacity to provide quality research and teaching.”—By Sandy Miller Hays, ARS.