Micropropagation and Repository Unit recognized with McLaughlin Award

Date posted: February 2, 2012

Picture of Dr. Daryl Bowman and Dr. Zvezdana Pesic-van EsbroeckDr. Daryl Bowman, director of the N.C. Crop Improvement Association, and Dr. Zvezdana Pesic-van Esbroeck, director of the Micropropagation and Repository Unit

North Carolina State University’s Micropropagation and Repository Unit has been named the recipient of the 2012 Foil McLaughlin Award, which is given annually by the North Carolina Crop Improvement Association to recognize individuals and groups that have had a significant impact on the North Carolina seed industry.

The award honors the late Foil McLaughlin, who was director of the North Carolina Crop Improvement Association from 1962 to 1991. The Crop Improvement Association is a non-profit educational and service organization recognized as the official agency for seed certification in North Carolina. Certification is a system of records, inspections and standards designed to ensure the identity and quality of seed.

Work done in the MPRU, as the Micropropagation and Repository Unit is known, was instrumental in revitalizing the North Carolina sweetpotato industry, said Dr. Daryl Bowman, crop science professor and director of the Crop Improvement Association. Today, virtually all the sweetpotatoes grown in North Carolina and much of the rest of the country originate in the labs of the MPRU.

But that was not the case in the 1980s. At that time, Bowman said sweetpotato mutations and diseases such as russet crack caused low yields and poor quality in the North Carolina sweetpotato crop. These quality problems caused the industry to shrink. It was then that Dr. Jim Moyer, now head of the N.C. State Department of Plant Pathology, showed that a sweetpotato seed production program based on micropropagation could solve many sweetpotato quality problems.

The prototype of today’s MPRU was created by Mike Baker of North Carolina Foundation Seed Producers,  Dan Finch of Finch Nursery, Dr. Jonathan Schultheis, horticultural science professor and N.C. Cooperative Extension department leader; Dr. Charles Averre, plant pathology professor emeritus; Bill Jester, extension associate in horticultural science; and Saunders Bennett of the N.C. Crop Improvement Association.

The micropropagation program traces its roots to research by Dr. Lowell Nielsen in the Department of Plant Pathology in 1958. He evaluated sweetpotato plants grown from apical meristems in test tubes and showed that the process eliminated viruses in the progeny plants. Averre joined the N.C. State faculty in 1968 to work with sweetpotatoes and other vegetable diseases, while Moyer came aboard in 1976 to work on viral problems in sweetpotatoes. Jester joined N.C. Cooperative Extension in 1988 as a vegetable specialist in the Kinston area.

Dr. Zvezdana Pesic-van Esbroeck became director of the MPRU in 1996, and working with research specialists Marilyn Daykin and Tania Guzman, built the micropropagation unit that exists today. The MPRU not only provides growers with disease-free, true-to-type sweetpotato plants but ornamental sweetpotato plants, blackberry, blueberry and strawberry plants as well. The unit has been recognized by the National Clean Plant Network as a center for origination of clean, disease-free plants in the United States.

Bowman said strawberry plants from the MPRU are recognized as highly desirable by the strawberry industry, adding that tens of millions of plants are furnished to berry growers each year.

The MPRU works closely with the Crop Improvement Association to assure that certified, true-to-type, disease-free plants are available to the industry. North Carolina is now the nation’s largest sweetpotato producer, and Bowman said the state’s sweetpotato industry would not be where it is today without the MPRU.

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