The first smooth-root sugar beet line with resistance to an emerging disease called rhizomania has been released by the Agricultural Research Service. Rhizomania resistance can save a farmer's entire crop from ruin.

The new breeding line, EL0204, has shown good overall crop performance in three years of testing in Saginaw, Mich., and two years of testing at Salinas, Calif. J. Mitchell McGrath, an ARS geneticist at East Lansing, Mich., and Robert T. Lewellen, an ARS geneticist at Salinas, developed the new line from plants originally bred by J. Clair Theurer, formerly an ARS geneticist at East Lansing and now retired.

This release is the first of many expected to add disease resistance to plants that combine smooth roots with high sugar content. A key strength of the new line is its resistance to rhizomania, a disease that was identified in Michigan for the first time in 2002.

In a Salinas field infected with both rhizomania and leaf spot disease, the new line yielded 12,154 pounds of recoverable sugar per acre, compared to 4,567 pounds on average for seven previous smooth-root releases from ARS.

The smooth-root characteristic promises to halve the amount of soil that sticks to grooves in sugar beet roots and makes it into the processing line. This will save the industry several million dollars a year in cleaning and disposal costs, especially at facilities located in jurisdictions where disposal of the washed-off soil is regulated.

Genetic material of this release has been deposited in the National Plant Germplasm System, where it will be available for research purposes, including development and commercialization of new sugar beet varieties. This should lead to the first varieties combining smooth roots with high yield and sugar content as well as disease resistance.

Sugar beets are grown on 1.2 million acres of U.S. cropland and bring farmers $945 million in annual sales.