Paloma Moe is working on herbicide-tolerant sugarbeet varieties. In another project, she has succeeded in breeding root maggot – a sugarbeet pest.

Paloma Moe

“I mate flies”

Paloma Moe wants to protect sugarbeet in the U.S. against a widespread pest – with tenacity, humor and a lot of inventiveness.

An air pump as laboratory equipment? Empty plastic smoothie cups in the incubator? Cat litter next to them? Paloma Moe shrugs her shoulders and grins when she talks about the research on “her baby.By “her baby,” she means the breeding of pests. To be more precise: the root maggot, a fly larva that feeds on young sugarbeet roots. The larva thus harms the plant, grows into a fly and lays eggs again at the roots of sugarbeet in the following season. Paloma Moe has even given the stages names: Watto (the fly) and Jabba (maggot) – characters from the fantasy saga Star Wars, epithets suggested by their appearance and behavior.


▶ Inventor

Why Paloma Moe builds her own research tools and how she comes up with her ideas.

Despite all the humor, breeding of the pests has a serious background: The root maggot is one of the biggest sugarbeet pests in the north of the U.S. “Up to now there have hardly been any research findings on the insect under controlled conditions in the greenhouse,” says Paloma Moe. Nor was there any special equipment available when she started working on the pest for KWS in 2016.

So Paloma Moe built some herself. She uses the air pump, which is connected to hoses, to suck in flies and release them in other containers for example in the empty plastic smoothie cups, on the bottom of which the flies then lay their eggs. And the cat litter? “I had a problem at first because I didn’t know which soil the maggots like.” The flies did lay eggs, and Paloma Moe placed them on young sugarbeet, but the larvae did not survive after hatching. Why? “One day I saw an ad for cat litter and had the idea of mixing it into the soil.” She assumed that previously the maggots had simply not been able to move about properly in the loose soil. But her own mixture worked.

Instead of a straw, Paloma Moe now uses an air pump …

… to suck in the flies one by one.

The objective: consistent data

Freshly hatched larvae are what Paloma Moe needs for her research. They are difficult to study under natural conditions. “Sometimes rain is a problem for the creatures, sometimes they don’t lay their eggs on every plant, which means it’s very difficult to get consistent data.”

Since 2016, the breeder and seven colleagues have collected more than 10,000 third instar larvae every year from sugarbeet fields in St. Thomas, North Dakota, on the Canadian border, six hours from their laboratory in Shakopee. The root pest is widespread in that state. From there, Paloma Moe brought the larvae to the lab. When she finally managed to get flies, “I had to get them to mate.” That was easier said than done: “The flies are really funny some males and females just didn’t like each other,” says Paloma Moe and grins again. “I became a matchmaker and had to select new males until I had paired them off with a female so that I could later obtain the eggs from the females.” The native Brazilian overcame this hurdle, too.

Collection made easy: In hot weather, the larvae burrow deeper into the soil. Paloma Moe uses lamps until the larvae fall onto plates.

Smoothie cup for the larvae: The eggs are clearly visible on a black cloth.

Optimized conditions with a new lab

Most recently, Paloma Moe succeeded in recovering an average of 28 third instar larvae from 30 eggs, which she used to infect sugarbeet a very good basis for collecting comparable data. The initial findings will soon be available: “We’re testing the first lines and we’ll have the results in three to four months.” That means Paloma Moe will be able to analyze which sugarbeet lines the pest stays away from, and search for the resistance gene so that it can be ultimately crossed into plants using genetic methods. The researcher will have optimized conditions to do that: There will be a new plant growth chamber for root maggot research in a new building at our Shakopee location.

In addition to this passion for “her baby,Paloma Moe is equally dedicated to another project, her main one: herbicide-tolerant varieties based on multiple tolerances for controlling weeds – the successor product to Roundup Ready®. The new technology is to offer tolerance to three herbicides. “We’ve selected the trait, now we’re going to backcross parent lines with it.”

Root maggot is one of the biggest sugarbeet pests in the north of the U.S.

Farming since childhood

Earlier, at the beginning of her professional career and even before that, Paloma Moe had no intention of going into breeding. She loved farming because her grandparents had their own farms with cows and goats. “I spent my weekends with them.” But Paloma Moe was thinking on a larger scale. Becoming a vet would have been an option. “But I couldn’t even watch the cows being given an infusion,” she says with a smile. “But I like plants and gardening I could grow food for the animals,” thought Paloma Moe, who then went on to study agricultural sciences in Brazil.

She would probably have stayed in her country of birth if she had gotten a job at a large international company. However, her English was not good enough. She therefore moved to the U.S. and took English courses at College of the Desert. Later that year, she had an opportunity to work and study with Ohio State University. The university is a cooperation partner of KWS in the U.S.

Paloma Moe has adopted this book system from forestry. It makes it easier to analyze the tests. Our research department in Einbeck has adopted the idea.

Paloma Moe started there in seed production. That was fifteen years ago. “To begin with I did manual crossing work and similar things, but I didn’t know exactly what for. It all came full circle when I had the opportunity to collaborate in the breeding group.” That is how she discovered how interesting not only producing plants, but above all breeding them was for her. In 2020 she completed a master’s degree in plant breeding. She now indulges her interest in agriculture in her private life as well: “I grow tomatoes, potatoes, red beet, spinach and squash on ten acres of land.”

When she looks back on her first 15 years at KWS, it sounds very much like our slogan #makeyourselfgrow. Paloma Moe emphasizes the variety, flexibility and good interaction within the company and the freedom to try things out. “And the support for my crazy ideas.”

Paloma Moe grins. |

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