Plant Breeder Amanda Hershberger: Pest And Disease Resistances Is Within Our Grasp

Amanda Hershberger Plant Breeder Syngenta
Amanda Hershberger
Plant Breeder

Amanda Hershberger is a plant breeder for Syngenta. She holds a B.S. in horticulture from Purdue University and an M.S. and Ph.D. in horticulture from the University of Georgia.

GG: How will breeders address needs to reduce chemicals by increasing crop resistance to pests and diseases? How far away is this technology?
Hershberger: Resistance breeding is vital to the success of many crops and reduces the need for chemical control, as well as reducing the pest’s development of resistance to a chemical control. My personal work experience involves resistance of vinca to Phytophthora.

Breeding for pest and disease resistance in ornamental plants has primarily utilized traditional breeding methods. Resistance breeding has also included molecular methods for problems such as black spot in rose and Fusarium in carnation. Agronomic crops have really paved the way for resistance development using molecular markers. I foresee a greater use of molecular techniques to achieve resistance in ornamentals. So, how off far is this technology? It’s right on our doorstep. Every year this research is being done, the more affordable and accessible this technology is to other crops.

GG: As a young breeder, what direction do you feel breeding is headed? What crops do you feel will be relevant and important over the next 30 years?
Hershberger: I don’t want to focus on crops specifically but really target the traits that might have relevance. Reducing inputs needed for a great ornamental display is something I consider to be one of the biggest concerns that we currently and will continue to have. Enhancing the consumer gardening experience is along these lines and is crucial for people like me to continue to enjoy working in this field. Developing sterility in crops otherwise known to seed themselves out of flower and/or cause the crop to invade other environments is a very important trait to develop. Examples of crops in which sterility has been developed include Lantana camara and Euonymus alatus (burning bush).

GG: Will the fervor for all new varieties continue in the industry or will breeders begin to focus on filling consumers’ needs?
Hershberger: Both of these things are true and are not mutually exclusive. New varieties will always find a need in the marketplace because of new innovations in breeding and technology. Consumers sometimes do not realize what they need or want. By innovating varieties to be more disease resistant, they will not recognize the change but will certainly appreciate the benefits. Also, by creating additions to a crop’s color palette, it will offer alternatives to a consumer that might require differentiation in their garden landscape. This, in turn, creates consumer need where it did not exist before.

GG: What crops do you manage?
Hershberger: I manage a vinca (Catharanthus roseus) project focusing on resistance to Phytophthora, a disease which has been utterly detrimental to this crop. Vinca with this patented disease resistance from Syngenta is on the market under both the Cora and Cora Cascade series. I truly believe in this project!

The other projects that I am involved in are with Todd Perkins, our onsite senior breeder as well as my “partner in crime.” These crops include rudbeckia, viola and pansy. We are also working on a number of other exciting crops that aren’t yet on the market so I have to keep a lid on it. Stay tuned!

GG: What direction is your breeding career taking? What other crop areas are you interested in?
Hershberger: I have always been interested in working with durable crops that can handle a variety of environments, especially drought-tolerant species. Until recently, I have spent most of my career focusing on woody ornamentals and herbaceous perennials. My work now focuses on a number of annual crops, and it’s crucial that the selections we make target the experience of the consumer, particularly in their required input and the sustained duration of their home garden purchase. We want to make it easy for our customers to enjoy our plants throughout the extent of the season. It’s also critical to ensure our selections can be easily grown by professional growers who are distributing our products.

GG: How did you come to this industry and specialty?
Hershberger: Honestly, I became interested in horticulture purely by accident. When I was 18, I was working out of someone’s home answering phones as a receptionist. I had a lot of free time in the house, and I didn’t handle boredom very well. After spending the first few weeks of the job watching more episodes of Golden Girls and Designing Women than I could handle, I started poking around the house to find additional things to do.

There was a number of dying house plants and a landscape in dire need of maintenance. I made a hack job tool belt with a spot for the cordless office phone and started going to town bringing the house back to life while not having any real idea on how to do it. Well, it worked! I finally stumbled on something that I was interested in and found something I wanted to study in college.

GG: How long have you been a breeder or studying to be a breeder?
Hershberger: In 2002, I formally began studying horticulture at Purdue University and obtained my B.S in 2006. Directly following this, I wanted to attend graduate school and contacted professors from the University of Georgia for graduate assistant-ship opportunities. One professor whose research focused on plant breeding had presented an opening to study this specialty. Studying genetics and breeding can be very intimidating, but I thought I could try it out and see where it took me.

I discovered that I really enjoyed breeding plants, especially ornamental crops where plant selection could really be an artistic expression by using science as your friend. I obtained both my M.S. (2008) and Ph.D. (2012) from UGA. My M.S. research focused on genetic and environmental interactions in the woody ornamental, Vitex agnus-castus (chaste tree), and my Ph.D. research focused on genetic variability and propagation of the herbaceous perennials, Spigelia marilandica (Indian pink) and S. gentianoides (gentian pinkroot). After graduating, I was fortunate to have obtained a position as a plant breeder at Syngenta in the great state of California. Only time will tell what will happen next.

GG: What is one outlandish prediction you have for floriculture in the next 30 years?
Hershberger: I don’t know if this is outlandish or just reasonably hopeful optimism, but I genuinely hope that the general population will start caring about gardening again. I think that society has been moving so fast that the standard person is too exhausted to bother to garden, let alone enjoy it. It’s clear that everyone appreciates and emotionally benefits from a landscape. By reclaiming the tradition of the gardening experience, I feel we can inspire a new generation of consumers who have a greater appreciation for the environment. By making the process easier to adapt to a busy lifestyle, everyone can feel that this is something attainable for them.

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