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Reporting on science, technology and innovation in Arizona and the Southwest through a collaboration from Arizona NPR member stations. This project is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.Additional stories from the Arizona Science Desk are posted at our collaborating station, KJZZ:

Trials Begin To Test Resistance Against Lettuce Wilting Disease

Fusarium wilt - a lettuce disease caused by a soil-dwelling fungus - is becoming a more common problem in fields. The disease causes lettuce to droop and turn brown, making it unsuitable for sale.

Typically, when lettuce wilt appears, the grower would then rotate to another crop like broccoli or cauliflower. But one farmer in Yuma dedicated three acres of his troubled field to research led by the University of Arizona.

U of A last conducted a test of resistant lettuce varieties 13 years ago in a field known to contain the disease. Since then, plant breeders have created new types of lettuce designed to elude fusarium wilt.

In the test field, scientists and seed company representatives hope the resistant varieties will appear healthy, but the researchers also want to see some sick plants to verify the presence of the disease.

“If the crop is successful, half of this lettuce or more will be dead,” said Victor Heintzberger, the president of Vanguard Seeds.

He traveled from Salinas, California to test some of the varieties his company is developing. Heintzberger said the field trial is an opportunity to verify results seen in the lab.

And there’s a little bit of friendly competition to see who will have the best-looking lettuce.

“I’m expecting to see one bed here totally green all the way though," Heintzberger said. "And that will have a Vanguard Seed flag on it.”

Heintzberger wants to see the successful lettuce from his company commercially available as soon as next year.

The lettuce trials will be on display during November’s Fusarium Wilt of Lettuce conference hosted by the University of Arizona’s Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture.