Two on UAPB faculty receive grants

Emmanuel Asiamah, assistant professor of animal science (left) and Sathish Kumar Ponniah, associate professor of plant science will receive $125,000 grants as awardees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Services 1890 Faculty Research Sabbatical Program. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)

Two University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff faculty members have been awarded the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service's 1890 Faculty Research Sabbatical Program. The program provides faculty at 1890 land-grant universities the opportunity to participate in a residency at an ARS laboratory to conduct cooperative research of mutual interest with ARS scientists.

Emmanuel Asiamah, assistant professor of animal science, and Sathish Kumar Ponniah, associate professor of plant science, will receive $125,000 grants to cover supplies, equipment and other related costs.

Asiamah will work with Joan Burke, research animal scientist, at the ARS Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center in Booneville, on ways to enhance the diets of sheep to enhance overall health and performance.

"The livestock industry's heavy reliance on chemical-based disease treatments has given rise to resistance issues in animals, raising concerns about public health," Asiamah said. "Our aim is to offer farmers a cost-effective and environmentally friendly approach to reducing, if not preventing, disease outbreaks within their herds. This project holds the promise of advancing livestock production towards greater safety and sustainability."

Specifically, Asiamah and Burke will investigate the inclusion of cranberry vine and sericea lespedeza -- a type of flowering plant -- in sheep diets. Both plants demonstrate the potential to have a positive effect on immune response and disease resistance in animals.

Asiamah said the initiative will create invaluable learning opportunities for UAPB students, as well as for students working at ARS during the summer. Graduate and undergraduate students will receive training in a variety of skills including animal handling techniques, molecular biology procedures, and the collection and analysis of blood and fecal samples. This multifaceted training equips students with essential skills to effectively address timely agricultural challenges.

"I am particularly thrilled about the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Burke, a highly regarded scientist with a substantial body of research in small ruminant health," Asiamah said. "I anticipate that our joint efforts will yield significant impacts, and I look forward to the knowledge I will gain from her expertise throughout this process."

Ponniah will be collaborating with Yulin Jia, research plant pathologist at the ARS Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, on a project aimed at identifying novel resistance genes for rice blast disease using genome editing.

According to Ponniah, rice blast is one of the most devastating rice diseases and poses a serious threat to world food security. Blast is responsible for 30 percent of losses in global rice production, the equivalent of feeding 60 million people.

"The use of fungicides to manage blast and other fungal diseases in the U.S. is very costly – around $65 million," he said. "As an alternative to depending only on fungicides, breeders in recent years have introduced resistance genes into rice to improve resistance to diseases including blast. However, rice cultivars containing only a single resistance gene to a specific pathogen race often become susceptible over time due to the emergence of new virulent races."

Ponniah said that weedy rice -- a closely related cousin of crop rice -- has coexisted with crop rice since the beginning of rice cultivation. This type of rice has novel resistance mechanisms to rice blast. Using breeding tools, researchers plan to find a new resistance gene from weedy rice to transfer to cultivated rice.

"We plan to identify more resistance genes from weedy rice," he said. "Additionally, genetic and molecular methods, new genetic stocks and germplasm will be developed for breeders to use for improving disease resistance in new rice cultivars."

The project will strengthen ties between UAPB and the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, providing research opportunities for UAPB faculty and undergraduate and graduate students, Ponniah said.

"Dr. Yulin Jia is a well-known plant pathologist who has worked on blast disease research for more than 20 years at the Dale Bumpers Center," he said. "I have been working with Dr. Jia for the past 10 years, and we have made significant progress in our research."

Will Hehemann is an Extension Specialist -- Communications with the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences