Research geneticist finds her way to Kansas

Mary Guttieri’s journey to Manhattan, Kansas, has been a long one.

She started her career as an organic chemist, and she now works in wheat genetics, battling some of the crop’s harshest enemies. Guttieri is a research geneticist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Center for Grain and Animal Health Research, working in the Hard Winter Wheat Genetics Research Unit.

“I was originally trained as an organic chemist, and when my husband went to graduate school at Cornell,” she said, “I found a job there operating one of the first DNA synthesizers ever placed in a laboratory, because I was a chemist.”

That job transitioned her skill set into the realm of molecular biology. Later she went to work as a technician for the tomato breeder at Cornell, studying ripening mutants in tomatoes using her molecular biology toolset.

The couple later moved to southeast Idaho and she began working for the USDA ARS in oat and barley genetics for about two years. From that position she was hired by the Potato Weed Science Program at the University of Idaho to characterize herbicide resistant weeds.

“I started working in wheat breeding in 1998 when I transitioned to provide project management and laboratory management for the southern Idaho wheat breeding program,” Guttieri said.

She was working in a breeding program that bred hard red winter wheat, hard white wheat, and spring wheats, both soft and hard, for both irrigated and rain-fed environments in the Pacific Northwest. In 2006 she joined the soft red winter wheat breeding program at Ohio State University in Wooster, Ohio.

“I provided genotyping, technical support, and chemical analysis related to wheat end use quality at Ohio State,” she said.

By late 2011 she’d relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska, and started working to help support a USDA NIFA-funded project related to nitrogen use efficiency in wheat. She’d accepted the position so that she could finally obtain her doctorate.

“I’d been out in these small towns most of my career,” she said. “We lived in southeast Idaho in a town of 3,500 people for 18 years. And then, Wooster, Ohio, is 75 miles from the Ohio State campus—so I’d never had a chance really to do a Ph.D.”

So she went back to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics at the University of Nebraska.

“So, I was very much a non-traditional graduate student,” Guttieri said. “It was a great experience because I had all of the science that I had done as background, or context, for the academic coursework, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to be a graduate student at that point in my career.”

She graduated in December 2014 and did a postdoctoral research project while she looked for the right fit for the next step in her career.

“I know that’s a long story, but I’m kind of an unusual case,” she said. “I’ve bred wheat in three of the major wheat producing regions of the United States—the Pacific Northwest, the eastern soft red region, and then in the Great Plains.”

Each step in her career has been connected in some way, and helping each task she was challenged with.

“It’s all connected,” she said. “The chemistry background has made me fearless in the lab. I am a stronger lab scientist than I am a tractor driver. I tell people that I have sequenced DNA and planted potatoes in the same day.”

At ARS she describes being a part of the team of scientists at the Hard Winter Wheat Genetics Research Unit as being a tremendous opportunity.

“We have top notch plant pathologists in our research unit in Dr. Bob Bowden and Dr. John Fellers” she said. “Our unit houses the regional genotyping lab, and Dr. Ming Chen, entomologist in the unit, is the regional expert in Hessian fly. So, this is a really great place to work.”

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Additionally, the ARS research unit is located on the Kansas State University campus, and Guttieri is next door to Allan Fritz, the K-State wheat breeder at Manhattan.

“The opportunity to have professional interaction with someone like Dr. Fritz is really just tremendously valuable—I can’t say enough good things,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place to do wheat research.”

Some of the genetic resources that have been developed at K-State’s Wheat Genetics Resource Center provide the genetic foundation for the work that she’s doing.

“This is the critical mass here of people who work on wheat at a very high level, and I haven’t even touched on all the core agronomy research, the collaborations that I’ve had with Nathan Nelson and Romulo Lollato,” she said. “This is such a great place to do wheat research because of just the critical mass of people and expertise that are here.”

Looking back, but still moving forward

When Guttieri first started doing DNA extractions, a good day was eight extractions. Today she has a robot that can do 1,536 a day.

“The robotic capabilities to enable the molecular genetic tools to characterize the materials we’re developing has been transformational,” she said. “Really the transformation in DNA technologies and the scale at which we can characterize the wheats that we’re developing has transformed how I do the type of breeding that I do.”

She calls it “a trait-targeted program,” with very specific characteristics she wants to incorporate into wheat germplasm that she’s developing, and she relies on the DNA marker tools to guide those breeding efforts.

When asked about her current projects, Guttieri admits that she’s like other breeders and probably has too many of them. She pointed to two that wheat producers could find relevance in.

“We’ve been working really hard to incorporate two highly effective genes for stripe rust resistance in wheat for the region,” she said. “The genes are called Yr5 and Yr15, and in combination, these are very powerful tools to address a major production problem for wheat producers in the Great Plains.”

Since stripe rust is one of the major causes of yield loss in wheat, she’s found the subsequent plants need to have a strong resistance to stripe rust, and she’s been using DNA tools available to ensure these genes are being used together in the lines.

“If you deploy any one gene independently and then plant it across the region, the stripe rust can figure it out, and it would overcome that resistance,” she said. “So we want to deploy these genes in tandem, or in combination, so that they are durable and effective over the long haul for the producer.”

At this point she’s bringing forward into multi-location replicated testing an array of germplasm that has the Yr5 + Yr15 gene combination.

“That’s really exciting to me to see these things in the field,” she said.

The stripe rust nursery at Rossville, Kansas, provides very intense selection pressure and to be able to see the lines completely green, happy and impervious to the disease is a really rewarding moment.

Probably a fourth of her effort is dedicated to “defensive plant breeding.” The stem rust races that have developed in East Africa—the Ug99 family of races—are very aggressive and they overcome most of the resistance genes in what North American wheats use.

“We have good resistance to stem rust in our North American winter wheat germplasm to the races that are currently present in North America, but should that situation change, our germplasm is vulnerable to stem rust,” Guttieri said.

And the challenge with stem rust is that by the time a producer knows it is a problem, it’s often too late to apply a fungicide because it’s past the pre-harvest interval for fungicide application.

“Stem rust is a disease that’s very effectively managed by host plant resistance and a significant proportion of my effort has been to incorporate genes that are effective against these very, very virulent races of stem rust into wheat germplasm that’s adapted to the region,” she said. “So should disaster strike, we have an answer at hand.”

Another piece to her puzzle of research that takes up a significant proportion of her program is about ensuring the wheat that’s produced is nutritious for consumers.

“I am working with germplasm to improve the iron and zinc concentrate availability in in wheat, and to reduce the concentrations of anti nutritive components of wheat,” she said.

Whole wheat flour products typically aren’t fortified, and the nutrition people gain from whole wheat products is the nutrients that are in the grain.

“The increased role of whole grain products in our diet makes it increasingly important that we optimize the nutritional value of wheat,” she said.

It takes a lot of time and effort to get her work out of the lab and into the fields for testing, eventually making it to the producer.

“We’re just now getting to the point where we have the quantities of grain that we need to analyze, to see what we’ve got,” she said. “This is a very exciting year for me because I finally have harvested enough grain to test for these traits.”

One of the nutrition traits she worked on started in Idaho—identifying a mutant of wheat that has a reduced phytic acid concentration. Later, it ended up in the ARS program in Lincoln, and from there it found its way back to Guttieri. “It’s sort of like I sent my children out into the world and my grandchildren came home,” she said.

Another component of her work is a trait that’s been incorporated into bread wheat from wild emmer for increased grain protein concentration. Guttieri has made an effort to evaluate the utility of this grain protein concentration trait and adapting it to winter wheat germplasm that’s commonly used in the Great Plains.

“The hope for that is the producers will be able to make grain with desirably high protein, with lower (rates of) applied fertilizer,” she said.

Even though it’s taken her years to come full circle in some of her research on specific traits in wheat, it’s still significant.

“So it’s a combination really of use of reaching back into the genetic history of wheat to recover characteristics that we now have value for, and using germplasm that’s been developed for directly for nutritional quality.”

“There are a lot of valuable traits which exist today—but are in genetic backgrounds that are challenging for applied wheat breeders to use,” she said. “The niche that I have is to get these raw genetic materials from these very unadapted sources into wheats that are relevant.”

She hopes to be able to get material others can actually begin using in their programs as parents.

“They call this germplasm enhancement or pre-breeding. Its goal is to make it feasible for people whose targets really are commercial to use these traits in their breeding program,” she said. “The other piece that now goes with that is that the development of marker technologies to support the breeding efforts. So it’s a combination of both the germplasm and the genetic technologies to follow the traits.”

Her work isn’t just for USDA-ARS. It’s very much integrated with the university efforts throughout the region, and the private sector.

“There’s a lot of partnership that happens here with the private and public sector and then me as our research unit is the federal piece of that,” Guttieri said. “So it’s a very collaborative effort.”

For more information about the Hard Winter Wheat Genetics Research in Manhattan, Kansas visit

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].