Technology arrived as tiny seeds of hybrid vegetables in the village of Xuefeng Ma’s youth. Using current technology, Ma is working with others at Noble to develop new, improved small grain cultivars for winter pasture through field testing and selective breeding. Noble’s small grains breeding laboratory and test plots are thousands of miles away from his home village, but life has a way of taking people back to their roots. Working in the soil as a child, then pursuing an interest in agronomy and crop science, Ma’s work has reminded him of the simplest rule: Plant what works.
Families that bought these seeds produced more crops. Others then realized the value of these new varieties. People were suddenly able to grow more food. I saw this and thought agronomy would be a good area of study for me.” Xuefeng Ma, Ph.D.
What sparked your interest in agronomy?
I have been interested in agronomy since childhood. In my village, each family needed to grow enough food to sustain them. It was hard work. Sometimes there was barely enough food. We grew many vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, corn and sorghum. Yields were low, and everything was weather dependent. There was no irrigation or livestock. We kept seeds to plant the next year. I remember when I was in middle school, commercial hybrid seeds became available.
What impact did the commercial seeds have?
Hybrid seeds represented new technology to people struggling to produce enough food for themselves. Families that bought these seeds produced more crops. Others then realized the value of these new varieties. People were suddenly able to grow more food. I saw this and thought agronomy would be a good area of study for me.
After attaining your bachelor’s degrees in agronomy and crop science, you continued your studies to attain a master’s in crop breeding and genetics in China. Why did you choose to pursue your Ph.D. in plant genetics and genomics at the University of Missouri?
I started as a visiting scientist at the University of Missouri. The lab I visited did genomics research work with cereal crops (wheat, rye and triticale), and I found it very interesting. I started my Ph.D. program after finishing my visiting program.
At what point in your studies did you become interested in genetics?
I saw chromosomes under a microscope during my studies in China, and I did lots of genetic work during my master’s program. However, the first time I saw DNA and extracted DNA was at the University of Missouri, which was exciting.
Was there a particular professor who inspired you?
Perry Gustafson, Ph.D., a retired Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) cereal geneticist, a very nice, kind gentleman who I worked for in Missouri. I learned his hands-off lab managing style, which I liked. I use the same style in my lab at Noble.
Members of Ma’s laboratory are currently developing improved dual-purpose wheat cultivars that can be used for both forage and grain production, cold-tolerant oat cultivars that demonstrate superior winterkill resistance and forage yield, and rye and triticale cultivars with increased early fall yield and/or total forage yield.
You were a postdoctoral fellow at Noble after your time at the University of Missouri. Why did you choose Noble for your postdoc work and what work were you involved in?
Noble was well known to me because one of my faculty members was a scientific advisor of Noble. As a postdoc, I researched gene transformation in alfalfa and white clover for improving phosphate use efficiency. After my time as a postdoc, I went to work in California at Ceres, a commercial seed company, for eight years before the opportunity came open to return.
What was it that made you want to come back to Noble?
One of my children was born here, so it was easy to come back to Oklahoma. We all feel this is home. It is not crowded here like in China. There is no traffic in Ardmore like there is in California, and neighborhoods are friendly. You see people you know at the grocery stores. We socialize with people we work with at Noble, which is very different from life in California. Of course, I was also interested in the position for improving small grains cultivars. Most of the experiments are done in field trials, which I enjoy.
What excites you about the future?
All three of my kids are growing up. Right now, we are busy with soccer and academic activities, but it is exciting to see their interests develop and to think about how they might use those in the future. From my work perspective, I am excited that we are planning to release a few wheat and rye cultivars. These cultivars have performed better than commercial controls in our trials in the last few years.
Field testing is always needed regardless of how advanced our technologies are. For my village in China, field testing meant we could raise enough food for our families. Testing at Noble is far more scientific, but the final lesson is the same: We have to plant what works.” Xuefeng Ma, Ph.D.
What makes your research unique?
Research here is different because we are working to improve forage yields of small grains. Most research elsewhere is to improve grain yield. We study early plant growth, grazing tolerance, forage quality and how to improve the plant to grow best in a particular environment. We focus on filling the fall-winter forage gap after summer perennials or native plants go dormant. Improved small grains are an advantage nutritionally to livestock and economically to producers since they maximize the grazing period and save producers from purchasing hay.
What is the most important lesson you have learned in your research?
After eight years of genomics and molecular breeding work in California and now at Noble, I am remembering and proving to myself again that field breeding and field performance tests are fundamental. Field testing is always needed regardless of how advanced our technologies are. Any single cultivar is only useful in certain regions. This is not known unless testing is done in that region. For my village in China, field testing meant we could raise enough food for our families. Testing at Noble is far more scientific, but the final lesson is the same: We have to plant what works.