West Virginia State University (WVSU) has received a $599,679 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expand research that develops rootstocks for watermelon crops.

“We hope to enhance resiliency and marketing opportunities for watermelon growers both in West Virginia and the U.S. by launching grafting techniques that will optimize returns on investment and address the stress factors that affect plants,” said Dr. Padma Nimmakayala, the lead scientist on the project.

The purpose of the project is to track and understand molecular changes happening in watermelon while grafted to wild watermelon species. This work will enhance the knowledge on the genes moving from one plant that is used as rootstock to the watermelon which is used as a scion, and vice versa. 

“This funding will help us to identify effective robust watermelon rootstock alternatives to the currently used calabash and pumpkin,” Nimmakayala said. The goal is to reduce soil-borne diseases and pests while maintaining or enhancing watermelon yield and quality.

This work will utilize various African endemic wild watermelon species for grafting to create stronger rootstocks. Grafting involves uniting two living plant parts so that they grow as a single plant. The team will graft Charleston Grey and other popular watermelons to rootstocks of wild species and analyze the results in terms of strength, disease-resistance and overall fruit quality.

The interest in grafting as a means of improving disease-resistance has grown in recent years, Nimmakayala said, as a result of changes in fumigation practices that led to decreases in watermelon yields. 

The funding will also allow the university to increase its capacity for student learning, providing additional hands-on opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students.

“The training in these technologies, along with the applied genomic procedures of horticulture, will brighten our students’ employment opportunities at both the state and national levels,” Nimmakayala said.

The funding is provided by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Capacity Building Grants Program, award number 2021-398821-34598.

From West Virginia State University News