Rusty Plants

On January 11, 1850, American botanist and mycologist Joseph Charles Arthur was born. He taught country school before completing his graduate degree at the Iowa Agricultural College [Iowa State University].

Arthur published his first paper on rust fungi. Rusts are plant diseases, parasitic fungi that require a living host to complete their life cycle. Rust species are the biggest threat to agricultural crops. Although very hard to treat, understanding how a specific rust goes through its life cycle helps control outbreaks and crop infections. Rusts have evolved over 300 million years and developed some wily behaviours, such as taking on the appearance of dust!

Arthur was appointed a botanist to Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. Here, researching botanists had hundreds of acres available for carrying out research projects and setting up field trials. Agriculture is a major business and help from science can take the guess work out of everything from crop rotation, soil nutrient restoration, water management… and how to limit rusts that can spoil crops from cereals and sugar cane to fruit, coffee, and pulp trees. At Geneva Station, Arthur’s research garnered his doctorate from Cornell.

By then he was specializing in vegetable pathology and accepted a position to form and head up Purdue University’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. This gave him access to the Indiana Experiment Station [Purdue’s Agriculture Experiment Station] doing what is today called agrobioscience.

Arthur began studies of rust culture, the deliberate cultivation of fungi. His studies used hundreds of collections and required thousands of greenhouse cultures. These continued for 19 years and determined the life histories and host relationships of about 100 species.

During this time, Arthur created a new classification for rusts, a total of 7800 known species. He published and founded the university’s herbarium [the Arthur Herbarium] that has become one of the world’s most studied research and reference collections of these plant parasites. After retirement he published the Manual of the Rusts in United States and Canada.

Rusts are clever. Fortunately, mycologists are vigilant and patient. Here is an example of cedar-apple rust spores alternating between their host plants.

Arthur served as president of the Indiana Academy of Science, the Botanical Society of America (twice), and the American Phytopathological Society. The Department of Botany and Plant Pathology he formed at Purdue celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2008. The Department’s Arthur Fungarium serves as one of the world’s most important collections of plant rust fungi.


B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage


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