An Interview with New Mississippi State University Turfgrass Breeder, Dr. Hongxu Dong

With former researcher and breeder Wayne Philley enjoying retirement life, Mississippi State University’s distinguished turfgrass breeding program has passed the baton for breeding new varieties to Dr. Hongxu Dong. Dr. Dong was born in China but has found a home in the Golden Triangle of Starkville. We sat down to talk about his background and the new direction of the program.

1. Are you excited to be taking over breeding at Mississippi State University?

Yes, absolutely. Through five years of graduate school and two years of postdoc. training in plant breeding, genetics and genomics, I have always enjoyed research. My research experience in laboratory, greenhouse and field has given me a clear vision of what work needs to be done to build a strong foundation for future efforts in breeding for improved turfgrass. I believe I am ready to lead on a collaborative research program like this position provides to be nationally recognized in the near future.

2. Where have you studied before? What is your background?

I am from China and earned my Bachelor of Science degree in Seed Science and Engineering from Shandong Agricultural University in 2012. After graduation, I came to the U.S. and worked as a master’s student under the direction of Dr. Yanqi Wu at Oklahoma State University, where I focused on breeding and genetics of lowland switchgrass. Upon graduation from OSU in May 2014, I moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a doctoral program in Crop Sciences. I worked on bioenergy grass Miscanthus under the direction of Dr. Erik Sacks. After receiving my Ph.D. degree in Crop Sciences from UIUC in December 2017, I did a two-year postdoc. in Dr. Andrew Paterson’s Plant Genome Mapping Lab at the University of Georgia, where I worked on sorghum genetic and genomic studies.

3. What projects are you taking the reins of at MSU that are ongoing? Talk a little about the Celebration X project that was started by your predecessor Wayne Philley.

There are two major ongoing projects based on Wayne Philley’s previous work. One is to build the foundation sod production program based on a cold-tolerant and high-quality St. Augustinegrass, named as ‘MSA 2-3-98’, which was evaluated and released on April 19, 2006, from Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. The second project is the Celebration X Bermudagrass program that we have partnered with Sod Solutions to improve Celebration bermudagrass. In the Celebration X Bermudagrass program, 86 experimental bermudagrass genotypes have been generated since the initiation of this breeding project. There are 47 intraspecific tetraploid hybrids (Cynodon dactylon; 2n = 4x = 36) and 37 interspecific triploid hybrids (Cynodon dactylon × C. transvaalensis; 2n = 3x = 27) that are currently surviving. These experimental genotypes were evaluated in field trials during 2016–2018 at the R.R. Foil Plant Science Research Center in Starkville, MS. Several elite selections are being evaluated at sod farms in SC, TN, TX, GA and FL. Six selections are jointly sponsored by Sod Solutions and Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station for testing with the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program.

Pictured above: Celebration X Trials.

4. What new projects would you like to get going in the next few years?

Improvement and development of new superior plant varieties is always the Holy Grail for plant breeders. Therefore, development of new breeding populations and evaluation of a large number of experimental lines will be the core of my future new projects. I feel I’m extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to continue Mr. Wayne Philley’s breeding program, which left me many valuable plant materials that I could use as parental lines. I’m also eager to collect and introduce more germplasm materials into my new projects because genetic diversity plays a vital role in genetic improvement of plant materials. Over the past decade, tremendous progress has been made to advance our understanding of plant genome organization, variation and evolution. However, such information is limited in turfgrass. Therefore, I am also interested in developing genomic resources such as high-density genetic maps and reference genomes for turfgrass. Additional projects will focus on studying the genetics of agronomic traits, abiotic and biotic stress tolerance traits in turfgrass. Identifying molecular markers associated with genes of interest would also be part of the research program I develop. Phylogenetic study could elucidate the evolutionary history of plant species and enrich the information of taxonomy, and it would be an important element in my research portfolio.

5. What new technologies will be coming to the industry in the next decade?

As a plant breeder and geneticist, I think high-throughput phenotyping (HTP) such as drones could potentially accelerate breeding progress in the turf industry.

(Note: HTP with technology requires the use of drones or other technology to speed up the process of in-field measurements for desired turfgrass characteristics such as drought and heat tolerance by imaging large amounts of plants in short timeframes for large populations.)


Despite the substantial evolution of DNA sequencing technologies over the past decade, phenotyping important physiological and developmental traits on large populations remains challenging. For example, obtaining data of highly heritable phenotypes associated with tolerance to drought and heat stresses is particularly burdensome, given that environmental conditions in which phenotypes were collected are nearly impossible to replicate across field locations and years. Phenomics-enabled breeding using HTP will enable researchers to better understand the complexities of trait development and to better optimize genotypes through selection in breeding programs.

Its not all work for Dr. Dong. He is an avid runner and likes to spend free time playing golf and basketball. Look for big things coming out of MSU soon.

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