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Research Spotlight

Dr. Ali Wright 


Ali Wright, PhD
Research Scientist
ARS Sugarcane Research Unit
Houma, Louisiana

The WSN caught up with Ali to talk about her research on herbicide resistance and itchgrass, one of the most challenging weeds in sugar cane, and some of her advice to those considering a career in weed science. Ali is a weed scientist at the ARS Sugarcane Research Unit in Houma, Louisiana.

WSN: How are you doing? What’s the weather been like where you are this winter?

Ali: I’m doing well.  Winter was pretty mild until last week when we had some freezing rain overnight.  It was strange to see icicles hanging from the street signs.  Mostly we have been getting some rain which is much needed as we had a period of extreme drought this summer.

WSN: So, the weather in the southeast is acting similar to elsewhere – a bit erratic. How does this impact your research?

Ali: Right now, in the greenhouse I am working with Italian ryegrass and, being a winter annual, it is thriving with the cooler temperatures.  This past summer, however, the extreme drought was paired with a run of exceptionally hot days. When we needed to be in the field, my technician and I would start at sunrise so we could finish data collection before the heat got to where it was unsafe to be in the field.  At planting in late summer, we usually apply a pre-emergence herbicide treatment.  With the drought there wasn’t enough rainfall for the pre-emergence treatment to be effective, so we had to apply a post-emergence treatment for itchgrass control.  Like everyone, we just have to be mindful of the weather and adapt when needed.

WSN: These seem pretty dramatic, but a necessary response. As far as what you are doing at planting to deal with the conditions, are sugarcane growers following your lead and has this caused you to work more closely with your university collaborators?

Ali: On our research farm, other plots, in addition to the weed science plots, were treated post-emergence to manage itchgrass.  On a larger scale, the whole Louisiana sugarcane production region was affected by the drought.  My colleagues at LSU ran into the same issues with weed control at planting due to the lack of rain.  We are collaborating on projects, including one focused on itchgrass, which is our worst weed in sugarcane.

WSN: What do you think makes itchgrass the worst weed in sugarcane? Any others that are a close second, third, fourth,,,,,,?

Ali: Sugarcane is a perennial grass crop, so it’s not surprising that the worst weed in sugarcane is a grass species. 

 Ali Wright in a sugarcane field in Louisiana
Ali Wright doing research in a sugarcane field in Louisiana.
(Photo credit: Mandy Guidry)

Like many weed species, itchgrass is a prolific seed producer.  It also self-fertilizes so it only takes one plant setting seed to cause a problem in subsequent years.  Many populations in the area will produce seed throughout the growing season – one exception was a population that only produced seed mid-fall.  The seed can very easily spread – my colleagues and I have found it on our clothes after being in an infested field.  If allowed to persist unmanaged, itchgrass can very quickly take over an area.  I have seen it proliferate along ditchbanks, bayous, railroads, and around telephone poles – areas where weeds are not being actively managed.   Not many herbicides are effective in controlling this weed – pendimethalin is effective for pre-emergence control and asulam is an effective post-emergence treatment against escapes, but that’s mostly it for herbicides that are registered in sugarcane.  Cultivation is another management strategy for itchgrass.  Like some of our problem weeds, itchgrass is a non-native species, originally from Asia.  Other problematic weeds include bermudagrass and nutsedge.  Johnsongrass historically has been a problem but less so now than it used to be.  We are starting to see more vaseygrass in sugarcane.  In some areas we have paraquat and PSII inhibitor resistant Italian ryegrass – this is a project I have been working on with Dr. Al Orgeron at the LSU AgCenter.  Morningglory can be a problem as it will twine around the stalks and interfere with harvest.  Itchgrass, however, is really what is at the forefront of growers’ minds when it comes to weeds. 

WSN: That really explains it and shows the importance of your research. How critical was your undergraduate and graduate training in allowing you to do what you do today, as a weed scientist at ARS?

Ali: I would say that my undergraduate and graduate training has been very critical.  When I started my undergraduate degree, I knew that I wanted to do molecular biology research.  I majored in recombinant genetics at Western Kentucky University and during my time there worked in Dr. Rodney King’s lab where I studied bacteriophage.  Both my classwork and my training with Dr. King gave me a very solid background in molecular biology.  Later, when I was applying those skills to herbicide resistance problems as an ARS technician, I decided to go back to school to earn a doctorate at Mississippi State University.  While I was there, one of my graduate committee members, Dr. Vijay Nandula, taught me how to use the spray chamber to perform dose responses and also how to perform enzyme assays to detect target site resistance to ALS inhibitors.  I have a very similar spray chamber here in Houma that I use frequently.  During my graduate work I also gained experience with transcriptomics which was very helpful during my post-doc - I am hoping to eventually put those skills to work in some projects I have planned in my current position.  My background in molecular biology gives me a skill set that complements those of my LSU colleagues, allowing for some great collaborations, such as investigating herbicide resistance.

WSN: You have been able to maximize what you have learned and connecting with several key individuals along your career path has definitely been instrumental in practical ways, and probably in the areas of mentoring and advising, too. It has been great to visit with you and as we end, do you have any sage advice that you could share with others about the field of weed science?

Ali: Yes, I have been very fortunate to have had excellent mentors throughout my education and career.  I don’t know about sage advice, but something that has helped me in weed science and that I think is an advantage is having a diverse background when it comes to my research experience.  In addition to weed science, I have worked in microbiology and plant pathology and those diverse experiences make me a better weed scientist and collaborator, particularly as weed science itself is such a diverse field that can encompass and interact with several disciplines.  So, I would recommend, particularly for anyone who is very early in their weed science career, to try to build a varied and diverse research experience as that will be useful later on.

WSN: Terrific! Thanks, Ali. We look forward to hearing more about your research in weed science. Your projects and approach are inspiring and will continue to have an impact for growers and on weed science both now and hopefully, long into the future. Take care.