By Gabriella D. Ferrari
Genetics student investigates disease resistance in chile
Greg Reeves is trying to find a needle in a haystack, or so it seems. In reality, Reeves is searching for a specific gene in the chile pepper genome in hopes of finding the secret to disease resistant chiles.
Reeves, a master’s student at New Mexico State University studying horticulture and specializing in plant genetics, determined that a specific inhibitor gene in chile peppers shuts down all resistance genes, making it completely susceptible to the plant pathogen Phytophthora capsici, better known as chile wilt, which is the worst disease for peppers and causes an estimated annual chile pepper loss of more than $100 million worldwide. Phytophthora was also the causal agent behind the Irish Potato Famine.
Reeves received a fellowship from the National Science Foundation’s East Asia Pacific Summer Institute, which selects students from across the U.S. to travel to various Asian countries. He spent the summer sequencing the genome of chile with Professor Doil Choi, director of the Plant Genomics and Breeding Institute at Seoul National University in South Korea. He was the only student doing this particular kind of research.
This task was done with the help of the Illumina Sequencer, a very expensive, advanced machine that only takes a few days to do the same amount of genetic processing work that previously took 600 machines 10 years to accomplish. Reeves said only a few universities have this kind of equipment.
“The chile pepper genome has never been published before, so this new know-ledge has far reaching applications – even beyond disease resistance,” Reeves said. Scientists can use it to look at pungency, color or other agronomic traits. “It’s very important for the pepper world.”
In Korea, Reeves assisted in sequencing the genome of two chile varieties: one of CM334, an incredibly disease-resistant wild Mexican chile, and another with the inhibitor gene, NMCA 10399. As the sequencing was done in sections, Reeves is currently reconstructing both genomes and comparing them to find the resistance and the inhibitor genes.
By identifying these traits, Reeves hopes it can be used to move the disease resistance to commercial chile varieties.
“Hopefully by solving the puzzle in chile peppers, we can also apply it to other crops to make them disease resistant as well,” Reeves said. “The ultimate goal is for the betterment of society and improvement of human conditions.”
Reeves was born and raised in southern New Mexico. He earned a Bachelor of Science in genetics from NMSU and expects to graduate with a master’s in 2013. He wants to pursue a Ph.D. and would eventually like to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, perhaps in the field of plant pathology, working to keep the U.S. agriculture system safe from pathogens.