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Northwest scientists defend lentils from root-rotting disease

Brown and white lentils spill from a container.
A superfood, lentils are a nutritious, protein-packed crop that replenishes the soil.

In our snacks, salads and soups, lentils add a high-fiber, protein- and nutrient-packed punch. In Pacific Northwest farmers’ fields, lentils are a valuable crop that conserves water and replenishes the soil, making Washington the third-ranked lentil region in the U.S.

But the Northwest’s prized ‘superfood’ is threatened by root rot, a disease that stunts and discolors lentil roots, stems and leaves, shrinking harvests.

To protect lentils from this costly disease, scientists at Washington State University are hunting down the chief cause of root rot and developing resistant varieties as part of a multi-national, $3.4 million research project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“In bad years, lentil farmers can lose their entire crop to root rot,” said Rebecca McGee, co-project leader, research geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and a WSU Crop and Soils Sciences and Horticulture adjunct scientist.

McGee, examining peas in a field.
USDA and WSU scientist Rebecca McGee leads research into lentils and other pulses, including a new $1 million effort defending lentils from root rot.

Caused by a number of pathogens, root rot’s number one culprit is a fungus, Fusarium.

“Fusarium has always been here in Washington, but we don’t know what specific pathogen, or multiple pathogens, cause Fusarium root rot in lentils,” McGee added. “By finding out, we can create better defenses.”

In the project, scientists in the U.S. and Canada set out to learn how the main lentil-infecting Fusarium species interact and affect plant nutrition. Then, they’ll work to develop new, resistant lentil varieties using the latest gene-marker technology and cutting-edge tools in bioinformatics— the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data.

Head shot of Dorrie Main
Co-leader Dorrie Main, Professor of Bioinformatics.

Funded by $1 million from USDA-NIFA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative, McGee and Washington State teammates—including Dorrie Main, Professor of Bioinformatics in the WSU Department of Horticulture; Lyndon Porter, USDA scientist and adjunct professor at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center at Prosser, Wash.; and Clare Coyne, USDA scientist and adjunct professor with WSU Crop and Soil Sciences— will screen plants, use large data to identify genes for resistance, and implement speed breeding to add resistance to existing, elite lentil varieties.

Researchers are also studying farm practices with an eye on establishing healthier, more nutritious crops. They plan to work with growers to develop best practices and effective integrated pest management strategies to prevent root rot.

“Together, all of these discoveries will help stabilize yields and sustainability for lentil growers,” McGee said.

“And, the knowledge gained and tools developed for this project will benefit other research projects on critical crop improvement issues associated with our changing environment,” Main added.

Driven by the needs of growers, project leaders consulted with farmers, commodity groups, and processors, forming an advisory committee to ensure the team develops answers, tools and varieties they need.

The grant also funds a graduate student exchange program, enhancing education and collaboration among scientists in the U.S. and Canada. Through the exchange, which begins in March with a graduate symposium at North Dakota State University, students will work alongside research scientists, attend conferences, and gain new skills while studying and solving root rot.

The overall project is led by Professor Mary Burrows at Montana State University, with collaborators at North Dakota State University, the University of Saskatchewan, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

  • Learn more about Crop and Soil Sciences at WSU here.
  • Learn more about WSU Horticulture research here.


Media Contacts

Rebecca McGee, USDA Agricultural Research Service, WSU Crop and Soils Sciences and Horticulture adjunct faculty, (509) 335-0300
Dorrie Main, Professor of Bioinformatics, Department of Horticulture, (509) 335-2774