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US (TX): Verchot launches research at Texas A&M AgriLife Dallas center

Dr. Jeanmarie Verchot, the new director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas, digs her bare hands into a clump of soil, ripping a potted canna lily apart by its roots and repotting each divided section in its own container.

“One plant is now four,” she said. “Cannas are tough.”

The potting is part of Verchot’s work with plant viruses, which has spanned roughly three decades. Investigating canna lily viruses is one of two research initiatives she now leads in addition to fulfilling administrative roles at the AgriLife Dallas center at 17360 Coit Rd. in North Dallas.

Verchot left Oklahoma State University as professor of entomology and plant pathology following a 20-year career, joining Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Dallas on June 1.

She now serves as the agency outpost’s public face, cultivating partnerships with peer organizations, regional policy makers, non-profits and private companies. Verchot is tasked with making the center integral to shaping North Texas’ literal and figurative landscapes. She is responsible for guiding the Dallas center’s overarching mission, agriculture for sustainable urban development.

Dr. Jeanmarie Verchot, new director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension center in Dallas, prepares to remove a canna lily from its pot and divide it into smaller plants – part of a research program she oversees alongside her administrative duties. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Gabe Saldana)

“We’ve started engagement by reaching out to small businesses and local organizations that already see the center as an asset,” Verchot said. “Obviously we want to expand visibility and collaborative opportunities far into the future.”

Existing research programs at Dallas include: work to breed sustainable turfgrass varieties for home, commercial and sport applications; overarching studies on plant genetics, alongside biotic and abiotic plant stresses, for crop improvement and urban agriculture applications; mussel research for the preservation of freshwater systems across the state; and comprehensive public outreach programming for widespread knowledge delivery.

Dr. Jeanmarie Verchot, new director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas, unpacks boxes for the laboratory that will host her research programs at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Gabe Saldana)

Verchot says she will maintain a “hands-on approach” to the directorship outside and within the Dallas facility. So far, she has personally undertaken setup of her own laboratory, greenhouse space and research specimens.

“As a fellow scientist, I can engage the faculty here with a perspective that a non-scientist administrator might not bring,” she said. “I want to use this to ensure program growth for the scientists here and to guide a culture of strong, long-term decision making.”

The New Jersey native’s own applied research program on canna lily viruses aims to address declines in outdoor crops, which continue to spur canna lily farm closures in Texas and Oklahoma – where she began her work with canna – among other producer regions, she said. Verchot noted that canna row crop farms have experienced downturn due to outdoor disease and a resulting movement toward greenhouse production.

“Canna farms are passed down from generation to generation, so when someone loses a farm they lose a culture, a family history,” she said. “It’s good as a virologist to be able to address something that’s socially important. We’re the only virology group (in the world) focused on bringing back canna as a row-crop industry.”

Aside from the cultural benefits of resurrecting row cropping, she said, canna lily grows prolifically outdoors compared to greenhouses.

Verchot’s research initiative involves isolating viruses, characterizing them, reporting on them and developing diagnostic tools. The work, since its inception at Oklahoma State, has maintained a research database over roughly five years, which includes observation of about 2,000 canna stalks per year, she said. That effort continues in Dallas.

“We want to figure out what the real concerns are in developing a strategy for disease control,” she said.

But while canna lily satisfies a need for applied research, the new center director will continue fundamental research to understand the genetic processes allowing viral disease in another crop, potatoes. This ongoing research dates back to Verchot’s postdoctoral work in 1998.

“Viruses depend on their interactions with cell membranes,” she said. “We are trying to answer what genetic mechanisms regulate virus/cell interactions and see if we can disrupt them as a means of virus control.”

Her team’s genetic work to combat potato crop viruses holds implications for other food members of the Solanaceae family like peppers, tomatoes and even coffee.

A group of postdoctoral researchers will arrive in Dallas beginning in July to round out Verchot’s laboratory staff as her program launches alongside the Dallas campus’ existing research initiatives.

“I think we’re going to be able work strongly together in Dallas over the long term and elevate the science to the level of regional, national and even international recognition that we’d like to see,” she said.

Source: AgriLife Today
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