UF ‘Dream Team’ Plans to Change Face of South Florida Ag, Natural Resources

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Contact: Beverly James, 352-273-3566, beverlymjames@ufl.edu

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – They don’t wear capes and tights, but the new University of Florida (UF) faculty members hope their research will help grow the state’s agriculture and natural resources, and stave off enemies that threaten industry.

The eight scientists, based at the Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) in Homestead, Florida, are bringing new research techniques and helping to shore up current research in a state that has recently faced several challenges. The research and education center is part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).

“Florida is considered home to the most invasive species more than any other region in the continental United States. We have 28 ports of entry for insects, plants and animals that threaten everything from oranges to avocados,” said Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “These researchers will join seasoned UF/IFAS scientists to find new solutions to ongoing issues critical to Florida residents and businesses.”

The researchers are involved in a variety of studies, some of which reach across the state:

Elias Bassil, a molecular stress plant physiologist, uses biotechnology — or gene manipulation — to find ways to breed plants that won’t succumb to stress. He is working with other scientists and growers in Mexico, Colombia and the United States to grow vanilla in South Florida. “It’s a collaborative effort; another researcher, Randy Ploetz, is working on breeding varieties that are disease resistant, and Alan Chambers, an assistant professor of genetics and breeding tropical fruits, brings his relationships with industry,” Bassil said.

Also, Bassil is working on breeding fruits and vegetables that are low in potassium. High potassium can cause everything from dehydration to low blood pressure to changes in the heart’s rhythm. “I am collaborating with a medical doctor who wants to produce these crops for market. We will start with lettuce and tomato, but it will be 18 months before we see results,” he said.

Haimanote Bayabil is the newest addition to the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center faculty. Bayabil believes that improved technologies in agriculture not only increase the viability of food production but also save lives. The Ethiopia native, who most recently worked at Texas A&M University, will focus on agricultural water management.

“One of the biggest challenges we are facing is the population increase, but the amount of resources is limited. One of the most critical resources is water,” Bayabil said. “We are adding 2 billion people by 2050, but don’t have enough water. If we can’t effectively manage the resources that we have, then we will not be able to feed the population. So, we want to find a way that will allow us to produce more crops while conserving fresh water.”

Zachary Brym, the new industrial hemp state research coordinator for UF/IFAS, plans to gather information about a plant used for thousands of years and has the opportunity to return to production in Florida. Modern uses include fiber, building materials, forage for cattle, and pain relief as a topical oil (CBD oil). “Though it is the same plant species as marijuana (Cannabis sativa), industrial hemp is different in a critical way. It only contains a tiny fraction of the psychoactive chemical THC,” he said. “Hemp’s viability as a commercial crop in Florida is tremendous, and growers are excited.”

In addition, Brym is helping UF/IFAS establish the research and Extension legs of the agroecology program. Agroecology is the sustainable production of goods through farming that emphasizes diversity and ecosystem function. “We want to frame agriculture as an ecological system, which sustains crop production, conserves natural resources and maintains social equity,” he said.

UF/IFAS is one of a small group of land-grant universities with a formal agroecology program with research, teaching and Extension faculty, Brym said. “As a concept, agroecology has been around for about a century, but it has become a hot topic in the last 10 years,” he said. “UF/IFAS agroecology will train leaders who will determine the future of agriculture and natural resources in the state, the nation and the world.”

Daniel Carrillo is an assistant professor who investigates solutions for laurel wilt, a disease that is decimating the $100 million a year avocado industry in Florida. The tropical fruit entomologist joins a robust team of scientists researching ways to stop the beetles that spread this disease.

Also, he has most recently discovered an invasive mite that feeds on lychee. According to Carrillo, Florida is the number-one producer of the lychee in the United States, a small rounded fruit with sweet, white, scented flesh, a large central stone and a thin rough skin. Approximately 90 percent of Florida’s commercial production of lychee is concentrated in Miami-Dade County. “We are investigating ways to mitigate this pest, so that the industry is not impacted,” he said.

Alan Chambers, who focuses on tropical fruit genetics and breeding, wants to bring a taste of Africa to Florida. Chambers is working with growers on production of miracle fruit, a small, red berry that is native to Benin, Ghana and Nigeria.

“The unique thing about miracle fruit is that the flesh has a mildly sweet tangy taste, but it has a molecule that binds to the taste buds and cause sour foods to taste sweet,” Chambers said.

On the vanilla project, Chambers researches which varieties will thrive in Florida. The plant is native to Madagascar, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. “There are four native vanilla species in Florida, but none are in commercial production,” he said. “We are using biotechnology to breed a high-quality plant by studying how they grow in heat and shade, what pests they might have, and how close you can put the plants together. The end goal is to help growers with this emerging crop.”

Romina Gazis, director of the UF/IFAS Plant Diagnostic Clinic at Tropical Research and Education Center, spends most of her days helping commercial growers, horticultural consultants and homeowners from South Florida find out what is wrong with their plants, if they have invasive pests on their property, and learn new skills about farming. “There are 1,500 nurseries registered in Miami Dade County alone — and this industry is the most important in South Florida,” Gazis said. “We are the number-two producers of ornamental plants in the country and number-one suppliers of tropical foliage.”

Also, Gazis works with tropical fruit growers, diagnosing and determining how to manage pest and diseases affecting their groves. Growers present questions about everything from mangoes to guava to Pitaya, an emerging crop in South Florida that is quickly replacing avocado and citrus farmlands. Another large client group is the landscape industry, Gazis said. “Within the landscape industry, my clients are mostly landscaping and pest control companies, who mainly bring palm and turf samples,” she said. “The clinic receives an average of 1,000 samples a year, and we — in contrast with clinics in other regions — do not have a low season. It is always warm and humid in South Florida, so disease pressure is pretty high year-round.”

Young Gu Her, a hydrologist, uses computer simulation models as tools to understand how water and nutrients move around us, and to predict when and where floods and droughts may happen. He is also trying to build new computer models that can help growers with best management practices and options for improved agricultural production and sustainability. “South Florida is very unique in terms of soil, land cover and topography as well as climate, crops and plants,” Her said. “Such unique features provide an ideal setting to develop and test new simulation models.”

In addition, he is investigating future climate scenarios projected for Florida to see how scientists can better prepare Florida’s agriculture and natural resources for expected changes in weather patterns. “Science tells us many things, including climate and sea levels are going to change in the future. But, it is not clear how the foreseen changes affect our water resources, crop production and ecosystems. Computer modeling is one of a few scientific ways to precisely predict our future,” he said.

Geoffrey Meru, a vegetable geneticist, hopes to develop fruits and vegetables that are resistant to invasive pests. He studies and grows squash, zucchini, butternut and watermelon. Meru not only uses traditional tools such as greenhouses, screening and pesticides, but also applies advanced genetic editing to find the genes that help plants resist attacks from pests. Now, he is trying to grow seed-oil pumpkins.

“The goal is to breed a vegetable that can withstand high salinity in soil, that is heat resistant and has a high tolerance to drought or floods. We want to help the growers save on pesticides and have a higher crop yield, while also helping the environment,” Meru said. “The trick is that the fruit has to have a good texture, be tasty and pretty. So, you can breed a resistant pumpkin, but will it taste and look good?”

Ashley Smyth, an assistant professor of biogeochemistry, studies how nutrients, such as carbon and nitrogen, cycle between the air, water and soil. She is usually covered in mud when she is working in the field. “I still get this sense of excitement when I take samples,” she said. “Each soil sample contains a whole world, invisible to the naked eye, and has its own story to tell.” One story of particular interest is how human activities and sea level change affect Florida’s soil and water quality.

For Smyth, working at TREC is a dream come true. “The location of the Tropical Research and Education Center, at the interface of the Redland agricultural area, Biscayne Bay and the Everglades, offers a unique opportunity to answer fundamental questions about biogeochemistry. Understanding how nutrients are recycled within coastal habitats like wetlands and seagrass beds, will help to foster new ideas for the conservation and management of South Florida’s natural resources,” she said.

Currently, she is working with UF/IFAS Extension agents to move oyster shells from Miami-Dade County restaurants to other counties where the shells can be used to restore Florida’s oyster reefs. “My goal is to turn research into programs that help raise public awareness of the benefits that Florida’s ecosystems provide,” she said.

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