It’s a long, long way from a Clarke County, Miss., farm to the on-stage spotlight of the World Cotton Research Conference in Brazil, but that’s where, in early May, before an audience of distinguished researchers from around the world, Dr. Jack C. McCarty, Jr., was honored as the International Cotton Advisory Committee’s Researcher of the Year.
McCarty, who grew up on the family’s dairy and row crop farm near Pachuta, Miss. (pop. about 200), has spent four decades-plus as research agronomist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service Crop Science Research Laboratory at Mississippi State University, working to unlock the secrets of the cotton plant to make it more productive, help it fend off pests and diseases, and improve its fiber.
“This is quite an honor for Jack and one that is richly deserved,” says Dr. Johnie N. Jenkins, Research Leader, Genetics and Sustainable Agriculture at the USDA/ARS facility, who also attended the conference. “Jack is a dedicated public servant of ARS, who has quietly gone about solving problems in cotton through good research for many years.”
The boll weevil is a major pest of cotton in Brazil, Jenkins notes, and years ago McCarty discovered and published on several wild cotton accessions that were resistant to boll weevil oviposition under no choice conditions.
“Jack was told at this conference that these accessions were also resistant to the boll weevil in Brazil. Thus, this and others of his plant breeding contributions are being used around the world in cotton breeding programs.
“We’re proud of this world class scientist and dedicated public servant, who still knows how to be a gentleman,” Jenkins says. “He has set an example for other ARS scientists in work, dedication, and accomplishments.”
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José Sette, executive director of ICAC in Washington, D.C., presented the Researcher of the Year award. “Dr. McCarty’s area of research is agronomy/breeding, with emphasis on expanding the genetic diversity of cotton, conversion of photoperiodic primitive races of cotton to day-neutrality, germplasm enhancement for improved fiber quality, and breeding for nematode resistance,” he said.
“Dr. McCarty’s innovative research has led to the development of more than 500 germplasm lines. He co-developed plant mapping technology that shows the relative contribution of each fruiting site to final cotton lint yield. He has published 163 peer-reviewed manuscripts and 102 other papers, and has presented his research at many national and international forums. He has counseled numerous undergraduate and graduate students, and is always willing to spend time mentoring younger scientists.
“We are pleased to make this presentation in front of his fellow scientists from all over the world,” Sette said. “In addition, we very much hope that Dr. McCarty will be able to receive the well-deserved recognition of ICAC members at our 75th Plenary Meeting, which will be held in Islamabad, Pakistan, from October 30th to November 4th 2016.
McCarty has been invited to make a keynote presentation of his research at the Pakistan conference.
Shares knowledge internationally
In 1999, he was invited to present a series of lectures at Zhejiang Agriculture University, Hangzhou, China, on U.S. agricultural research and programs; diversity of primitive upland cotton germplasm; cotton pest resistance; and end-of-season cotton plant mapping.
In 2015, he received a special invitation from the director of the Institute of Cereal and Oil Crops, Hebei Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences, Shijaizhuang, China, to present lectures on cotton genetic diversity and development of nematode-resistance germplasm using marker-assisted selection.
He has also attended and made presentations at international conferences in Athens, Greece; Cape Town, South Africa; Lubbock, Texas; Brisbane, Australia, and Valencia, Spain.
The U.S. Upland cotton germplasm pool has been seriously eroded by over-exploitation of a few elite lines over the past 30 years, McCarty’s nomination for the ICAC award notes. “The narrow genetic base of Upland cotton is one of the major constraints in its genetic improvement. However, the wild gene pools from G. hirsutum race stocks remain untapped, uncharacterized, and underutilized.
“Dr. McCarty's day neutral conversion program opens a new paradigm in Upland cotton breeding programs to utilize gene pools from wild race stocks in the genetic improvement of Upland germplasm.
“Yield reduction in Upland cotton due to nematode infection is substantial and approaches $200 million dollars annually in the U.S. His research and germplasm are making major contributions toward reducing these losses. The incorporation of nematode resistance gene(s) into commercial cultivars has been hampered by the labor-intensive resistance screening process and lack of molecular markers tightly linked to resistance loci. The discovery of SSR markers associated with resistance genes provides a tool to overcome the problem of the time-consuming, costly, tedious screening process for resistance gene(s) in cotton.
“He was one of two lead scientists who developed a strategy for the design for testing of transgenic Bt insect-resistant cotton and partnered with industry to conduct the world’s first field test of transgenic Bt insect-resistant cotton. This design of Bt cotton testing is practiced in almost all cotton industries throughout the world.”
In addition to presenting his research at national and international forums, and publishing of hundreds of peer reviewed and non-peer reviewed manuscripts and papers, the nomination notes, “he has counseled numerous undergraduate and graduate students, and is always willing to spend time mentoring younger scientists. Former graduate students have gone on to successful careers with Dow Chemical, PhytoGen Seeds, Bayer CropScience, Monsanto, and ARS, to name a few. Dr. McCarty’s research achievements and unique ability to work cooperatively across research disciplines make him a worthy choice for the ICAC Researcher of the year award.”
Mississippi agricultural family
A sixth generation Mississippian, McCarty says the family farm on which he grew up started as a dairy operation, then later added row crops and beef cows. “When I was a teenager, our row crops were cotton and corn, but then later cotton was dropped and it was corn, pasture, and cows. I still have cows there.
“There were four of us kids, and three of us went on to agriculture careers. My brother, Robert, now deceased, was director of the Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industry, working in the regulatory arena, and my other brother, Will, was Mississippi Extension cotton specialist until his retirement several years ago. My sister, Jane, is a retired teacher. For years, we three brothers would meet in the morning for coffee and conversation. I miss that.
“Growing up, I enjoyed farm life, and working with crops, and it was in high school at Enterprise, Miss., that I knew I wanted some kind of career in plant science. When I was doing undergraduate work at Mississippi State University, I really liked my agronomy classes.
“Later, working toward my master’s degree and doing research at the USDA Boll Weevil Laboratory on developing cotton resistance to the boll weevil, I knew that was what I wanted to do. When I got my Ph.D., an opportunity opened to join the USDA/ARS cotton research team, and I’ve been there ever since.”
Though cotton is one of the world’s most-researched crop plants, McCarty says, “There still is a lot of progress to be made. We’ve improved cotton’s yield, we’ve improved its fiber and seed quality, but there’s still a lot of room left to make its fibers more uniform.
“One of the main reasons spinning mills like polyester is that every fiber is uniform. It’s a man-made product, and each fiber can be an exact copy of every other fiber. But that’s not the case with cotton, which grows and matures under a widely variable set of environmental conditions in the U.S. and around the world, resulting in a wide range of fiber lengths and qualities. Work still needs to be done to make it more spinnable.”
McCarty has done research over the last several years on developing cotton plant resistance to nematodes, both root knot and reniform, pests which cause millions of dollars of yield losses each year. “We’ve developed cotton lines with a high level of resistance to reniform nematodoes,” he says, “and the germplasm has been released to companies for incorporation into their commercial varieties.”
The sharp decline in cotton acres in recent years has had an impact on cotton research, he says. “Fewer acres has meant fewer checkoff dollars going to Cotton Incorporated, which funds a lot of cotton research. Our USDA/ARS research budget has held fairly stable, but over time, as researchers have retired they haven’t been replaced, so research manpower devoted to cotton at the federal level has been diminished.”
McCarty began work the week of May 17 on planting 50 acres of cotton plots for his 2016 research.