The Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center at Weslaco is located in the southern most tip of Texas known as “The Lower Rio Grande Valley.” Research at the Weslaco Center focuses on South Texas agriculture, including land and water use, urban development, population growth and foreign competition.
By working with new technologies in molecular biology and plant sciences, Weslaco Center is creating “next generation” crops to protect the environmental and natural resources and improve the health of citizens in its south Texas region.
Key Research Areas
- Plant Molecular Virology
- Sugarcane Breeding
- Plant Physiology
- Soil and Water Resource Management
- Vegetable Breeding
- Plant Genomics, Molecular Biology, and Biotechnology
- Insect Vector Biology
- The use of spinach defensins to strengthen citrus resistance to citrus greening will allow for millions of trees to stay productive longer. This will save thousands of jobs, keep juice plants from going out of business and save the United States citrus industry millions of dollars per year.
- The application of next-generation sequencing techniques has identified and isolated genes controlling stress resistance such as cold, which could prevent losses to the US sugar industry.
- By utilizing a combination of farm-level production investigations, computer simulations, and economic analysis, tools can be developed to assist growers, processors, investigators, and policy makers to identify suitable feedstocks for production in specific regions.
- Water resource management research can improve water-use-efficiency and improve crop productivity.
- Vegetable growers will sustain and increase production and profitability by growing heat-tolerant, disease-resistant, high-yielding, flavorful cultivars in Texas.
- Increased production and consumption of Texas-grown vegetables will improve the local economy by reducing vegetable imports.
- Research findings from the entomology group will be used to design an effective integrated pest management strategy to control the potato psyllid and zebra chip disease in Texas and beyond.
Plant Molecular Virology
Erik Mirkov, Ph.D., Professor
Current research involves first identifying, and then through genetic transformation, incorporating viral resistance genes into critical South Texas crops using technologies for sugarcane and citrus that were pioneered at the Weslaco Center. We have also used pathogen derived resistance approaches to create transgenic citrus and sugarcane plants that are resistant to the main viruses causing economic losses in these crops.
Citrus greening disease, or Huanglongbing (HLB), is thought to be caused by the bacterium Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, a closely related group of phloem-restricted, non-culturable bacteria transmitted by citrus psyllids. An approach has been developed that uses spinach defensins to strengthen citrus resistance to citrus greening. Dr. Mirkov is working closely with Southern Gardens Citrus, the world’s largest supplier of pure Florida orange juice, and his approach has been used on the most commonly grown oranges, grapefruits, and popular lemon varieties in Texas and Florida. So far, spinach defensins have made many trees resistant to greening and others more tolerant to it.
Jorge da Silva, Ph.D., Professor
For developing improved sugarcane and energy grasses, Silva’s research program has photoperiod facilities necessary for flowering induction and hybridization crosses. His work is aimed at genetic improvement, and has a modern plant-tissue culture micro-propagation lab (meristem culture) that allows rapid increase in the amount of genetically identical plant material for the rapid multiplication of these hard-to-propagate crops. Capabilities includes molecular marker analysis, for the application of marker-assisted selection to assist the breeding program.
We have developed energy cane cultivars with high biomass yield, in partnership with Chevron Technologies Venture and BP Biofuels that can be grown to a wider region of Texas and the United States, specifically designed for use in the production of bio-fuels.
Sustainable Production of Regionally-appropriate Biomass Feedstocks
John L. Jifon, Ph.D., Professor
Water resources required for feedstock production will depend on location, feedstock type, farming practices and end-product. Our current project is using a combination of farm-level production investigations, computer simulations and economic analysis to address the growing issue of bioenergy impacts on water resources.
Estimates of water requirements to grow feedstock crops and to convert the biomass into biofuels are being evaluated under different water resource scenarios that are representative of the southeast U.S. This information will be used to develop tools to assist growers, processors, investors and policy makers to identify suitable feedstocks for production in specific regions, and feedstock combinations can result in sustainable/profitable high-value products while minimizing negative impacts on critical resources such as water availability and quality.
Soil and Water Resources Management
Juan Enciso, Ph.D., Associate Professor
Dissemination and fate of foodborne pathogens and indicators on produce post irrigation with surface water: Intervention trials are being conducted to test the effectiveness of irrigation water treatments in reducing produce contamination at harvest. Irrigation-induced dissemination and fate of indicators and pathogens on produce at harvest will then be determined and good agricultural practices (GAPs) for management of irrigation will be developed.
Our research team is currently involved in a funded project with Shell Oil Company to assess sweet sorghum yield, growth, and conversion efficiency. Three irrigation regimens are being tested in this study.
Sensor technology research: Our research team is currently involved in a project to develop high-throughput phenotyping methods to accelerate introgression of insect-vector and pathogen-resistance traits in solanaceous crops.
Carlos A. Avila, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
Development of tomato yellow leaf curl virus resistant cultivars: Current efforts of the breeding program are focused to introgress resistance genes for Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus (TYLCV) into heat tolerant breeding lines. Marker assisted selection is being used to increase selection efficiency by allowing us to only evaluate plants carrying the resistance gene(s) in the field.
Development of molecular tools for white rust resistance selection in spinach: The major yield-limiting disease for spinach production in Texas is white rust (WR), caused by Albugo occidentalis. Since natural infection levels in the field varies year-to-year, conventional selection of resistant cultivars in the field is time consuming and unreliable. Therefore, in order to improve cultivar-development efficiency, the breeding program is evaluating spinach-breeding lines from the public and private sectors and using genome-wide association analysis to develop molecular markers linked to WR resistance.
Plant Genomics, Molecular Biology, & Biotechnology
Kranthi K. Mandadi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
Pathogens, insects, and environmental stresses cause major losses in yield and quality of crops globally. We are using the latest “Omics,” molecular and genetic approaches to advance the fundamental and translational research related to diverse agricultural crop stresses. Using high-throughput next-generation sequencing (NSG) and phenotyping technologies, we are establishing genotype-to-phenotype knowledge bases for diverse abiotic and biotic stress conditions. The knowledge bases are valuable resources for discovery of gene modules and molecular markers useful for crop improvement via biotechnology and breeding, as well as to advance the fundamental knowledge of plant stress phenology.
Insect Vector Biology
Ismael E. Badillo Vargas, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
Potato psyllid monitoring program: A statewide psyllid monitoring survey was established in the mid 2000’s to quantify the numbers of psyllids that were present in potato farmer’s fields, and the percentage that were carrying the pathogen. The potato psyllid monitoring program continues in Texas as well as research activities associated with psyllid and pathogen haplotyping.
Insecticide efficacy trials: Research is being conducted on efficacy evaluation experiments of current, improved and experimental active ingredients of chemical and organic insecticides sponsored by agrochemical companies. Mosquito research: A collaborative project willfocus on conducting an integrated vector-human biosurveillance of high consequence trans boundary infectious diseases transmitted by mosquitoes including the arboviruses Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya, and West Nile.