Scientist Honored for Work in Pakistan

wheat field under a blue sky

As scientists worldwide raced to create breeding lines that would tolerate a fungal disease that was decimating crops in Africa, Dr. David Marshall worried about Pakistan, where wheat was the leading crop – and where resistance to the disease was nearly nonexistent.

Disaster, though, has been averted, thanks in part to the quick work that Marshall and his colleagues did through a five-year project to enhance Pakistan’s wheat productivity. Today, some 40 percent of Pakistani wheat has resistance to a particularly troublesome stem rust known as race UG99.

“That’s quite an improvement, by any measure,” says Marshall, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientist and a professor in NC State’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology.

Dr. David Marshall points to a wheat field as he talks to six scientists in Pakistan.
Dr. David Marshall (far right) discusses wheat breeding with fellow scientists in Pakistan.

For the project, Marshall and others in the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Foreign Agricultural Service recently received the 2016 Abraham Lincoln Honor Award in global food security from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

According to the USDA, the prestigious award recognizes “exceptional leadership, contributions or public service individuals or groups” who support its mission and goals.

While the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project covered a range of activities – from improving rust pathogen surveillance to developing and implementing better agronomic management practices – Marshall and his ARS colleagues at NC State focused on breeding.

Specifically, they helped the Pakistani scientists adopt advanced DNA fingerprinting techniques to create parent breeding lines that were not only resistant to stem rust but also had other favorable characteristics. And they worked to quickly use those parent lines to create high-yielding varieties.

Marshall says the project has been truly collaborative and should have lasting benefits. At the time the project began, Pakistan’s wheat breeding programs lagged behind those of other countries technologically, but now they “are on a level-playing ground with every other country in terms of wheat breeding.

“And,” he adds, “we hope it will stay that way long after this project ends in 2019.”