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Apple Genome, Alternative Grains, Ag Biomass, Beefing Up the Future

Posted by | September 8, 2010

Apple Cup Rivals Contribute to Apple Genome

An international team of scientists from Italy, France, New Zealand, Belgium and the U.S. have published a draft sequence of the domestic apple genome in the current issue of Nature Genetics.

The availability of a genome sequence for apple will allow scientists to more rapidly identify which genes provide desirable characteristics to the fruit and which genes and gene variants provide disease or drought resistance to the plant. This information can be used to rapidly improve the plants through more informed selective breeding.

Horticultural genomicist Amit Dhingra led the team from Washington that contributed to the sequencing of the apple genome. Photo by Brian Charles Clark
Horticultural genomicist Amit Dhingra led the team from Washington that contributed to the sequencing of the apple genome.

“Before genome sequencing, the best we could do was correlate traits with genes,” said horticultural genomicist Amit Dhingra, who led the Washington-based team’s efforts in the international project. “Now we can point to a specific gene and say, ‘This is the one; this gene is responsible for this trait.’ That trait of interest might be, for instance, a disease, which is why sequencing the human genome was such an important milestone. Or the trait might be for something desirable, like flavor in a piece of fruit. We are already working on finding physiological solutions to issues like bitter pit in current apple varieties with the gene-based information available to us and laying a foundation for improved varieties in the future through generation of sports (mutations) and breeding.”

The Washington state contribution to the sequencing work was a unique collaboration between the cross-state Apple Cup rivals of WSU and the University of Washington.

“UW is a world leader in medical research and WSU is a world leader in agricultural research,” said microbiologist Roger Bumgarner, whose UW lab supplied the initial sequencing expertise to the project. “Technological advancements and techniques initially used to study medically important genomes and problems can be rapidly applied to genomes and problems of agricultural importance. We both had something to contribute and to learn from one another. I think there are many more opportunities for such collaborations to develop in the coming years.”

While the apple genome provides a valuable resource for future research, one pressing question answered by the international team’s paper in Nature Genetics was one of origin. Scientists have long wanted to know — and have for years argued vehemently about — the ancestor of the modern domesticated apple. The question is now settled: Malus sieversii, native to the mountains of southern Kazakhstan, is the apple’s wild ancestor. Now that that question is settled, scientists will begin using the apple genome to help breed apples with desirable new traits, including disease resistance and, potentially, increased health-benefitting qualities.

A longer, more detailed version of this story is available at

Buckwheat, Quinoa May Be New Options for Organic Grain Grower

Quinoa, front, and buckwheat could be new crops for organic grain growers.
Quinoa, front, and buckwheat could be new crops for organic grain growers.

Organic grain growers in Washington looking for new crops with new markets could be producing buckwheat and quinoa, if WSU scientists can confirm their viability and develop varieties specifically for the Pacific Northwest.

Researcher Kevin Murphy currently has trial plots of 44 varieties of quinoa and 30 varieties of buckwheat in five different locations around the state, including at the WSU Organic Farm outside Pullman. His long-term goal is to breed varieties growers can count on regardless of where they live in Washington.

“We are trying to find a variety for each major bioregion in the state,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s research, funded by WSU’s BioAg project, got its start in western Washington where he was working with organic grain growers. “They are using small-scale equipment and want to keep using it, diversify a little and sell a new product to the local stores,” he said. “Both PCC and Whole Foods Market would buy locally if they could.

“Some organic growers raise grain, but they want to diversify their grain rotation,” Murphy added. “Over the past couple of years, organic growers in western Washington have started to grow wheat for local consumption; bakeries that used to get their wheat from Canada, Utah, or the Great Plains states, prefer to source their grain from essentially next door. Based on that success, a lot of farmers want to keep going.”

“We’ll be identifying existing varieties that can be grown right away — and making that information public, probably within the next two years,” he explained. “Then we’ll start breeding varieties adapted to different areas. There is a good chance that we can make some significant initial steps for the improvement of desirable traits that can make an immediate impact in the successful growing of quinoa and buckwheat in Washington State.”

A longer, more detailed version of this story is available at

Learn more about WSU’s BioAg program by visiting

Gift Fuels Ag Biomass Research

Birgitte K. Ahring and student in front of the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory at WSU Tri-Cities.
Birgitte K. Ahring and student in front of the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory at WSU Tri-Cities.

A prominent agricultural family is giving $225,000 to support research being conducted in the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory at WSU Tri-Cities.

The gift funds an Easterday Graduate Research Fellow to focus on the anaerobic digestion of cattle manure and other agricultural wastes, including post-processing vegetable residue. The goal is to establish bio-gas yields and discover other value-adding byproducts for use and commercialization.

The Easterday corporation is a diversified vegetable row crop farming and cattle feeding company in eastern Washington with more than 300 full-time employees. Easterday Farms is known internationally for growing, packing, and shipping onions, while Easterday Ranches raises beef and is deeply involved in the Washington Cattle Feeders Association.

“Easterday Ranches and Easterday Farms have the perfected combination of manure and produce byproducts for this kind of research,” said Cody Easterday. “Our company, our employees, and our family are proud to be an industry leader in finding ways to turn ag waste into energy.”

BSEL research sponsors finance applied research relevant to specific agricultural or commercial needs of the region and nation. By supporting a graduate research student at WSU Tri-Cities, sponsors help to educate and train future scientists and agricultural personnel trained in the application of biomass and the environmental sciences.

The BSEL team also recently unveiled a new, $575,000 piece of research equipment: a biomass pretreatment system that was custom-designed by the WSU team and assembled by Vista Engineering Technologies in Richland, Wash.

The equipment uses steam heat and high pressure to break biomass — such as switchgrass or non-food agriculture waste – into component sugars and other recoverable factors that can be developed into a form of biofuel. Depending on how the research develops in the laboratory, the Easterday project could someday be tested on a larger scale in this pretreatment system.

“This equipment allows us to vary the conditions and evaluate different biomass feedstocks, so we can find the optimal conditions for degrading the material into valuable products,” said Battelle Distinguished Professor Birgitte K. Ahring, director of the WSU Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy. “This advanced pretreatment process is more cost efficient than traditional methods, making it more viable to use biomass to develop biofuels and bioproducts.”

WSU Tri-Cities is located along the scenic Columbia River in Richland, Wash. Established in 1989 with upper division and graduate programs, WSU Tri-Cities expanded in 2007 to a full four-year undergraduate campus offering 17 bachelor’s, 14 master’s and seven doctoral degrees. Learn more about the fastest growing and more diverse campus in the WSU system at

“Beefing Up the Future” Offers Industry Insights and Strategies for Success from WSU Animal Sciences

WSU Animal Sciences presents "Beefing Up the Future" Oct. 22 and 23.
WSU Animal Sciences presents "Beefing Up the Future" Oct. 22 and 23.

Beef industry professionals and students interested in the industry will have an opportunity to learn about the research, teaching and extension of Washington State University’s Department of Animal Sciences at “Beefing Up the Future” on Oct. 22 and 23.

“Beefing Up the Future” is a showcase of science and solutions for Washington’s beef cattle industry. Focused on targeted areas of research and extension projects currently underway, the Friday and Saturday program offers an inside look at the science and technologies that are shaping the industry’s future.

On Saturday, the program includes a keynote address from Larry Corah, vice president of Certified Angus Beef. Having spent his career advancing the beef industry as a Kansas State University Extension beef specialist and director of beef production systems for NCBA before joining CAB, Corah is nationally recognized for his visionary perspective on the beef industry. Based on his experience, he will offer his vision of the beef industry’s future by outlining challenges and presenting opportunities for Washington producers.

Margaret Benson, chair of the WSU Department of Animal Sciences, said, “We anticipate participation from all over the region, and by both established professionals and young people looking for a future in the industry. To that end, we’re arranging for a bus to bring folks from the west side of the state to Pullman on Friday, and take them home again on Saturday.”

Information about transportation, meals (including a Friday night beef BBQ with optional beef and wine tastings created by WSU executive chef Jamie Callison), hotel rooms and registration costs is available on the animal sciences Web site: