Fulbright Grant Funds Three-Month U.S. Visit by Portuguese Researcher

Rita Costa at the American Chestnut Foundation research farm. Photo by Steven Jeffers, Clemson University.
Rita Costa at the American Chestnut Foundation research farm. Photo by Steven Jeffers, Clemson University.

To help keep the European chestnut from suffering the same plight as the American chestnut, Portuguese scientist and Fulbright grant recipient Rita Costa recently spent three months working at the U.S. Forest Service Southern Institute of Forest Genetics (SIFG) in Saucier, Mississippi, and the Forest Health Research and Education Center (FHC), Department of Forestry, at the University of Kentucky.

Costa is a senior researcher from the Portuguese National Institute for Agricultural and Veterinary Research. Costa was hosted by Dana Nelson, SIFG project leader, and collaborated with Nelson and others on American chestnut disease resistance. “My primary goal was to glean an understanding of molecular and genetic mechanism of resistance to ink and blight diseases in chestnut,” says Costa. “I also wanted to to identify molecular markers linked to resistance for marker assisted selection.”

Costa’s road to the United States began in 2006 when she initiated a breeding program to give high priority to introgressing resistance genes of Asian species by controlled crosses. European chestnut (C. sativa, also known as sweet chestnut) is a very important nut crop and forest species in Europe, with a major economic and ecological role in the Mediterranean region and beyond. Portugal is currently the fourth world exporter of nuts derived from sweet chestnut, and is on a trajectory to become a leader in European production. Current nut production brings about 50 to 60 million Euros/year to the producers. However, production areas are under serious threat due to diseases and pests such as ink and blight disease, and more recently gall wasp.

“These diseases and pests have caused considerable decline in chestnut fruit production during the 20th century in southwestern Europe, and are spreading significantly,” says Costa. “In the last century, Portugal has experienced a serious decline in chestnut growing area and productivity per hectare, with the current area and productivity reportedly less than half of the country’s potential.”

In order to develop a consistent and fruitful research program, Costa started a collaboration with Nelson in 2009, since they shared commom interests in developing disease resistance in particular in European chestnut and in American chestnut (C. dentata). According to Costa, this collaboration has been crucial in building a successful program that has already produced the following positive results:

  • A protocol was established for phenotyping the progenies in terms of resistance/susceptibility to P. cinnamomi;
  • A common marker framework between U.S. and Portugal was used for genotyping F1 progenies of the crosses and one genetic linkage map was created with 252 mapped markers to date; with to quantitative trait loci (QTLs) P. cinnamomi resistance were identified;
  • A transcriptomic approach (i.e., comparing RNA samples from susceptible and resistant species) was implemented and a set of candidate resistance genes were identified;
  • New simple sequence repeat (SSR) markers designed to mark these genes were developed and are now being used in the lab; and
  • The most resistant genotypes based on these data were selected from the breeding program and are being propagated by tissue culture, for testing in different edapho-climatic conditions with regard to their compatibility with different nut varieties so that they can be transferred to the industry in the near future.

“During my three-month stay in the U.S., I visited several universities and research labs and had the opportunity to use a new high throughput technique, genotyping by sequencing and computational methods and approaches to analyze data and saturate the previous genetic map,” says Costa. “My three-month stay has been an amazing and rewarding experience, both personally and professionally, thanks to my host Dr. Dana Nelson who organized an extraordinary program, and to Fulbright who sponsored my stay, both to whom I am very grateful.”

Costa plans to share the knowledge she gained from her U.S. experience with her European colleagues, whom she will be working with to develop a new proposal on chestnut to be submitted to Horizon 2020, the largest EU Research and Innovation programme ever, with nearly $80 billion of funding available over a 7-year period (2014 to 2020). Learn more about Horizon 2020.

The Fulbright Program is a U.S. government-sponsored international educational exchange program designed to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.” The program gives participants the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns. Program participants are chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential.

For more information, email Dana Nelson at dananelson@fs.fed.us


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