Assistant Professor Puts the UMD Small Grains Breeding and Genetics Program on the Map, Receiving an International Award for His Contributions to Wheat Genomics

Fostering collaborations across Plant Science and Landscape Architecture to revitalize the program in Maryland

Image Credit: University of Maryland

May 21, 2020 Samantha Watters

Vijay Tiwari, assistant professor in Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland, recently received the Leadership Award from the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC), a collection of 2,800 scientists across 70 countries dedicated to the production of high-quality wheat through high-quality genomics. This award is given annually to a few scientists who are critically impactful in the field of wheat genomics. This year, Tiwari was the sole recipient for his leadership and expertise in Radiation Hybrid mapping or RH mapping, a technique that was used to validate the entire wheat genome assembly. This work was integral in cracking the full genome sequence of wheat, published by the IWGSC in Science. With UMD spearheading this work and acting as one of the ten leading institutions in the IWGSC globally, Tiwari has not only elevated UMD’s reputation in wheat genomics, but has revitalized the Maryland Small Grains Breeding and Genetics program. By bringing together other experts across plant science to create a unique collaboration, the program is on the verge of rolling out new varieties of wheat to serve the state of Maryland and Mid-Atlantic region while helping combat global hunger. 

“We are taking a big step forward for wheat breeding and genetics here, and people should know that Maryland has an active and exciting wheat and small grains program,“ says Tiwari. “IWGSC took me by surprise with this award. Some of the previous leaders are world-renowned scientists with thousands and thousands of citations, so I’m honored.”

“It is with great pleasure that I am presenting Vijay with this Leadership Award for his work on RH mapping for structural genomics,” said Kellye Eversole, Executive Director of IWGSC, at the award ceremony as part of the Plant and Animal Genome Conference featuring thousands of international scientists in agricultural genomics. “Vijay is a two-time former recipient of an IWGSC Early Career Award, and we are delighted to see the accomplished scientist and leader he has become.”

“There are multiple approaches used by the IWGSC to sequence the wheat genome, and we helped them with the validation of some of those approaches,” explains Tiwari. “RH mapping provided an independent control to validate some new methods never used in wheat before, and to validate the assembly of the entire genome, so it was an essential component. Moving forward, we are taking the RH mapping resource that we developed over the years and combining with the whole genome sequencing data to develop a very useful resource for the wheat community to help with the functional characterization of genes in the wheat genome.”

With the wheat genome now sequenced, Tiwari is taking this knowledge forward into his work in the Maryland Small Grains and Genetics program to develop new varieties for Maryland and beyond. “We are now applying this knowledge,” says Tiwari. “What are the important genes, and how can we use those to get the agronomically important traits improved in wheat that can help us feed a growing population?”

In order to accomplish this and create new and improved varieties of wheat and other small grains that are of interest to Maryland growers, Tiwari has assembled a gene bank with more than 30 thousand different small grain germplasms, harboring immense genetic diversity for wheat improvement. He has also created unique collaborations within Plant Science and Landscape Architecture to bring together expertise in breeding, disease resistance, gene editing, and Extension education to systematically determine what traits are desirable, what genetic material from the gene bank is useful, and how this can be used to create new varieties for local farmers.

Tiwari with stakeholders in UMD research greenhouse
Tiwari guides stakeholders through work at the UMD Research Greenhouse

“We are in a unique position, and I always say that to our stakeholders,” says Tiwari. “In different places where I have been, they may be leaders in wheat breeding, but they do not have the type of collaborations that we have or expertise across all the aspects of small grains, like a dedicated person working on plant gene editing like Yiping Qi who is at the top of his field, Nidhi Rawat as one of the top-notch scientists working on wheat diseases, and Nicole Fiorellino who ties in Extension as an agronomist, so we have such a wonderful team. The team is further bolstered by accomplished plant physiologists, virologists, and scientists working on plant microbe interactions.” Tiwari adds that UMD has an active Small Grains Trial Center that helps the small grain breeding program perform field tests. “These resources and experts provide us a one-stop shop to find solutions for critical questions in small grain crops in Maryland,” says Tiwari.  

“We are very excited, all of us coordinating on these efforts because we all are young in our careers, enthusiastic, and have great ideas,” adds Nidhi Rawat, assistant professor in Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. “It’s not only what we can do in the lab, it is how we can apply it. For example, one of the major goals of our efforts is to test everything in the gene bank for resistance against wheat diseases of concern to Maryland farmers.”

“There is a lot of the promising genetic material really focusing on disease resistance, which is a global goal for any new variety, but we are really taking into account the opinions and needs of the stakeholders for physical characteristics like tall, short, flowering early, and other traits as well,” says Nicole Fiorellino, assistant professor and Extension specialist in agronomy Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. “They [Tiwari and Rawat] do years of work in the lab and take it out to the field and test it, and I get to be the bearer of good news and tell our stakeholders about all the promising work the team is performing.”

According to the team, this excitement is being felt all across the state for the revitalized Maryland Small Grains and Genetics program, with growers eagerly anticipating new varieties and grateful for the expertise and support that Tiwari, Rawat, and Fiorellino are providing. The program is actively working with the Maryland Crop Improvement Association and the Maryland Grain Producers Utilization Board to fulfill the needs of the growers and stakeholders. And with expertise across genetics, breeding, plant disease, and agronomy, the program under Tiwari has the potential to make measurable impacts both locally and globally.