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Virginia Tech plant ecologist receives grant to study invasive agricultural weed

April 12, 2016

Jacob Barney kneels in grass
The first goal of Jacob Barney, an assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, is to examine the range of variation in how Johnsongrass grows, spreads, and reproduces, and how those differences translate at the local and regional spatial scale.

A Virginia Tech researcher will spend five years ‘deep in the weeds’ of Johnsongrass research with the help of a $5 million grant from the USDA.

Johnsongrass, native to the Mediterranean region, has snuffed out important native plants in the United States since it was first introduced in the 1800s, costing the agriculture industry millions of dollars each year.

In collaboration with lead researchers at the University of Georgia, Jacob Barney, an assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, will conduct a series of field and greenhouse experiments followed by the use of a computer simulation model.

His first goal is to examine the range of variation in how Johnsongrass grows, spreads, and reproduces, and how those differences translate at the local and regional spatial scale.

Secondly, he will screen hundreds of Johnsongrass accessions for herbicide resistance.

“This is important as herbicide resistance is the primary issue facing weed science currently with many of our most important herbicides losing efficacy as weeds evolve the ability to survive herbicide application,” said Barney, who is also a core faculty member with the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech.

Johnsongrass can rapidly adapt to changes in climate, soil, surrounding organisms, and agriculture in ways not previously observed in other plants, making it an important model system to explore the underpinnings of weediness.   A great deal of the perennial plant’s biomass is made of rhizomes, or subterranean stems that grow underground and frequently send out roots and shoots; this makes it particularly difficult to eradicate.

Two graduate students—Alyssa Smith of Ridgeway, South Carolina, a master’s student and Becky Fletcher of Kansas City, Missouri, a doctoral student-- both in the department of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science will join Barney on the research project.

“In general, I find Johnsongrass an incredibly interesting species to study.  It has been so successful in many different habitats and countries around the world, indicating that it is very good at adapting to different environments,” said Fletcher.

Researchers at other universities working on the project include Andrew Paterson, University of Georgia; Jeff Dahlberg, University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources; C. Michael Smith, Kansas State University; Wesley Everman, North Carolina State University; Marnie Rout, University of Texas, Temple; and Clint Magill and Gary Odvody, Texas A&M University.

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