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AU News

College of Arts and Sciences Graduate’s Goal is Improved, Healthier Crops

March 7, 2022
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Involvement in the AU Ecology Club and fascination for plants led an alumnus of the Anderson University College of Arts and Sciences to research aimed at better food crops.

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James Duduit, a graduate of the Anderson University College of Arts and Sciences, is conducting doctoral research aimed at developing robust, disease-resistant food crops.

James’ journey to Anderson began in the seventh grade when his father, Dr. Michael Duduit, came to Anderson University to accept a position in the College of Christian Studies. James knew for a long time he wanted to attend college at Anderson University. He didn’t consider going anywhere else. 

When James was a student in the College of Arts and Sciences at Anderson University, he chose a different path from many of his classmates. A biology major, James was fascinated by plants and ecology. As he was pursuing his studies at Anderson, James was looking for organizations to plug into.

“In the Biology Department there was an internal club. It was just lectures from people that were going into medicine and essentially hospital work,” James said. “Since I wasn’t going that route, I wanted to have something that was more for people like me that wanted to do something either outdoors or related to plants.”

So James formed the AU Ecology Club and found like-minded classmates. One of the club’s early activities was organizing several cleanup days at Rocky River Nature Park, a natural area acquired by Anderson University that has a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals. He appreciates the guidance of one of his professors, Dr. Thomas Kozel of the College of Arts and Sciences. 

“Dr. Kozel helped me along with that. He also was personally interested in a lot of those topics. He helped me a lot and actually got a grant from Duke Energy to survey Rocky River Nature Park,” James said. “We ended up going to one of the wetlands out there and cataloging all of the different species of plants that were present, because they were going to flood a certain section.”

Since graduating Magna Cum Laude from Anderson University in 2018, James has focused his studies in the area of plant molecular biotechnology and is currently a doctoral student at North Carolina State University. Recently, James received a U.S. Department of Education Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) Program Fellowship aimed at combating diseases affecting tomato crops.

“My main project is trying to make tomatoes resistant to bacterial wilt, which is a horribly, economically devastating pathogen. Once it gets in your field, you just can’t grow there anymore. You can’t grow tomatoes anyway for up to 10 years,” James said. “There’s a native gene in a specific cultivar (a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding) that is already resistant to bacterial wilt, but the problem is you have a lot of these other cultivars that are of a much higher value but they don’t have that gene. So if you want to breed the gene into the susceptible cultivars you’re going to lose 10 plus years trying to get all of the characteristics out that you didn’t want to bring over. We’re trying to speed up that pipeline so that breeders and farmers could have quicker access to resistant cultivars.” 

James wants his research to be a win-win for growers and consumers.

“My goal is to continue pushing the edge of our understanding in plant molecular biotechnology so that more enabling tools and choices can be developed for the betterment of growers and consumers,” James said. “I hope that my work with tomatoes and sweet potatoes can speed up cultivar development times to ultimately lead to cheaper and better products for consumers. And with my work in tomatoes, that the dangerous bacterial wilt disease can be better mitigated so that growers around the world can be benefited.”

James has also researched orphan crops, which are crops that don’t have a high market value. Examples of orphan crops are pawpaws (Asimina tribola), a domestic tree-grown edible fruit, and American groundnut (Apios americana), a tuber that has grown natively up and down the east coast. He says groundnut tastes kind of like a mixture of a potato and a peanut and was eaten by Native Americans and early settlers.

For James, who hopes to become a professor someday, there’s a joy in learning new things and an excitement about expanding knowledge in plant molecular biology that never gets old, whether it’s been learning about new plants in the AU Ecology Club or making discoveries that will benefit those who grow our food.

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