Graduate students crucial to LSU AgCenter’s rice breeding program

A row of young adults wearing green polo shrts stands in a warehouse with a metal roof.

From left, Roberto Fritsche-Neto, Jennifer Manangkil, Kajal Gupta, Maria Montiel and visiting student Marco Renan Felix at the 2023 Rice Field Day at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station near Crowley. Photo provided by Kajal Gupta

Argentina, India and the Philippines are continents away from the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station near Crowley, but graduate students from each of these countries are providing an invaluable service to the LSU AgCenter’s rice breeding program.

The three students are Maria Montiel, Kajal Gupta and Jennifer Manangkil, and they conduct research for AgCenter rice breeders Adam Famoso and Roberto Fritsche-Neto. According to their supervisors, the results of their research are being directly implemented and utilized on a day-to-day basis in the breeding program.

“This research is directly impacting how we make breeding more productive and cost efficient,” Famoso said. “It’s not something that is going to take 10 or 20 years and may or may not have an impact. It’s practical research with practical outcomes.”

Famoso’s assistants, Montiel, of Argentina, and Manangkil, of the Philippines, started at the AgCenter in 2021 and work on a range of projects, respectively focusing on genomic selection within multi-parental populations and the destructive rice diseases blast and sheath blight. Montiel said she’s always had a passion for plant breeding and food production, and as a result, she has consistently oriented her career towards those goals, which includes joining the AgCenter’s rice program.

“The LSU AgCenter's rice program enjoys a global reputation as one of the best in the world,” Montiel said. “Recognizing the need to further enhance my academic background, I made the decision to pursue a Ph.D. at the AgCenter, aligning my studies with the exceptional program here.”

According to Montiel, one of her current projects places special emphasis on how different line development strategies impact the genome organization and directly impact the accuracy for predictive modeling. This information is shaping the breeding strategies used to increase the accuracy in predicting which new lines to test.

Manangkil’s passion for microbiology, coupled with a profound interest in plant pathology and breeding, led her to the AgCenter.

“My decision to pursue my studies at LSU was influenced not only by the presence of many successful colleagues and friends already studying and working in the university but also by the cutting-edge technological advancement it offers,” she said.

Manangkil said that rice blast poses a substantial threat to global rice production, often resulting in yield losses ranging from 10% to 30% worldwide, while sheath blight can contribute up to 50% yield loss.

Gupta, Fritsche-Neto’s graduate assistant, is in her first year at the AgCenter working on new methods to identify and evaluate diseases based on drone images. Fritsche-Neto said, due to the atypical dry weather conditions the state has seen this year, there hasn’t been much with which to work, but that hasn’t stopped Gupta from getting things done.

“We didn’t see much disease nearby, so thus far she’s spent much more time working on a different task, but also a very important one,” Fritsche-Neto said. “She’s working on a project to identify the weather effect on grain quality.”

Fritsche-Neto said the project collects historical data from the days of planting trials, where the rice station plants a set of genotypes eight times between February and late April, spaced out between two weeks.

“So, Kajal is working on trying to identify the main weather components affecting grain quality for chalk, milling, grain length, etc.,” he said. “The reasons for this research are to find the best planting window to minimize weather impacts, then to identify what rice lines we have in our germplasm for these weather fluctuations to serve as parents in breeding populations.”

He says this research will help select better parents to create new rice populations with better quality regardless of weather conditions.

For her part, Gupta, who hails from Punjab, sometimes called the “food bowl of India,” said she enjoyed being outdoors all day as a child, and her love for nature has only grown since she chose a career in agriculture.

“I am sure that this graduate research position at LSU will widen the horizons of my knowledge and make me prepared for high-quality research,” she said.

11/21/2023 9:28:28 PM
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