Plant scientist studies connection between wheat sawfly and damaging virus
By Reagan Colyer, MSU News Service
Uta McKelvy is a long way from home in her native Germany.
And here in Montana the Montana State University professor is helping Montana ranchers battle wheat stem sawfly disease.
McKelvy was recently recognized by the International Integrated Pest Management Symposium for her doctoral work studying the role pests play in a wheat disease cycle.
Uta McKelvy, who received her doctorate from the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU’s College of Agriculture this fall, is also an associate Extension specialist for the department and works in MSU’s Schutter Diagnostic Laboratory alongside professor Mary Burrows.
Last month, McKelvy received the organization’s outstanding Ph.D. student award. McKelvy was the only recipient of the award for 2020.
After completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees in her native Germany, McKelvy came to MSU for her doctoral studies in 2016.
She focused her research on wheat streak mosaic virus, a wheat disease that was hitting the state hard at the time. In her studies, she explored how different agronomic practices could lessen the risk of wheat streak mosaic disease; how the wheat stem sawfly, a common insect pest, adds to wheat yield losses; and the risk of perpetuating the wheat streak mosaic disease cycle.
“We wondered if there was a connection between wheat stem sawfly and the effect they have on the risk of wheat streak mosaic disease,” McKelvy said. “Both the insect pest and the virus occur in the same geographic region and share wheat as a common host, but the interaction between the insect and the disease had not been looked at.”
McKelvy tailored her work to have the highest possible applicability for Montana growers with research plots all over the state, including at MSU’s Arthur H. Post Farm near Bozeman and the Northern Agriculture Research Center in Havre as well as on-farm sites in Amsterdam and Big Sandy.
A significant result of the project was an online learning tool called AWaRe — short for Assessment of Wheat streak mosaic Risk — in collaboration with Burrows and fellow MSU researchers Tim Seipel and Robert Peterson. The AWaRe tool allows producers to input the many variables at play in their own fields, such as planting date, variety selection and seeding density and helps them learn about the potential risk for wheat streak mosaic virus in their own crops.
“Wheat streak is not a new disease. It has been known in the U.S. for almost 100 years,” she said. “But this wheat pest complex is very complicated, so it can be hard for growers to understand all the different factors involved and how they influence what is actually observed in the field. The goal was to break the most important information down in simple terms and turn it into a model that can be used on a producer’s phone.” In addition to honing her research skills, McKelvy said her doctoral work also helped kindle a love for Extension programming and interaction with local stakeholders to solve real, on-field problems.
"Getting to combine the scientific research and outreach components was new for me,” she said. “Talking to growers really motivated and inspired me. Being able to interact with the people who would actually be users at the end of this project was really motivating and gave it so much more meaning.”
The 2021 International Integrated Pest Management Symposium, which includes representatives from more than 30 countries, has been postponed until the spring of 2022 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The theme for the upcoming symposium is “Implementing IPM across Borders and Disciplines.”