PULLMAN, Wash. — Imagine being given a pile of glass shards that once was a large, thick object and being asked to reassemble it.
Looking at the broken glass you can’t tell how large the object was. Some pieces are pulverized into crystals the size of dust specs. You aren’t told what the glass object used to be, its size or shape; but you are given the assignment of reassembling it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture-WSU Plant Pathology Bioanalytical Laboratory, has a similar assignment; only it reassembles the shattered remains of molecules contained in a drop of water so small humans can’t perceive it without instruments.
Here, Bob Bonsall, research director of the lab, pursues this unbelievably minute work with the help of the newest technology, a computerized instrument with the appropriately incomprehensible name of Q-Tof Hybrid Quadrupole/Orthogonal Time of Flight Mass Spectrometer.
The instrument recently was installed in the bioanalytical lab at a cost of $400,000.
What could justify such an expensive instrument?
David Weller, a USDA-Agricultural Research Service plant pathologist stationed at WSU, and Bonsall believe the instrument with the long name will quickly pay for itself in basic scientific discoveries that will save wheat and barley farmers millions of dollars a year now lost to root diseases, while also helping protect the environment.
The Palouse country not only produces some of the world’s best wheat and barley yields, it also has some of the world’s worst soil erosion, which can wash fertile, nitrogen-bearing soil into streams and rivers.
Weller says Northwest farmers are taking many aggressive measures to reduce erosion. One of the most promising involves direct seeding and minimum tillage. Unfortunately, root diseases are holding back wider adoption of this technology in the Northwest because direct seeding greatly increases damage from root pathogens.
A single root rot disease, “Take-All,” currently destroys an estimated $750 million in wheat each year in the United States and as much as $30 million a year in the Pacific Northwest.
“Growers are having a tough enough time with markets and low prices,” Weller said. “Our job is to provide the tools and knowledge to reduce disease losses and enhance sustainability.”
With the new mass spectrometer and other equipment in the lab, scientists in the analytical laboratory shatter molecules and reassemble them in digital form to identify compounds that define how roots, pathogens and beneficial organisms interact in the soil.
Bonsall describes the process as one of learning a new language, the one plants and soil organisms use to “talk” to each other. With older technology, Bonsall says scientists were learning one word at a time.
“With the new mass spectrometer, we’re learning entire paragraphs at once,” Bonsall says. He likens the instrument to the Rosetta stone, which revealed the secrets to translating ancient Egyptian.
Weller explains that scientists have established that plants and micro-organisms communicate through chemical messages. These messages tell the “Take-All” pathogen that it has come into contact with a wheat or barley root, instead of the root of an apple tree, and that it should expend its energy to attack the root.
Similarly, the wheat or barley plant detects the presence of the “Take-All” organism and sends word to friendly organisms in the soil to “Colonize our roots and protect us.” Friendly soil organisms receive the message and begin producing beneficial compounds to protect the plant from the “Take-All” organism.
As they discover the language of plants and soil micro-organisms, scientists are essentially writing a dictionary for that language. The words are chemical compounds.
Simply stated, the spectrometer is a computer into which scientists can insert specimens prepared from plant roots. These specimens are created by pulverizing plant roots and extracting chemicals from them into sterile water. The specimen that goes into the computer is microscopically small, but loaded with chemicals. It is the molecules of these chemicals that the spectrometer shatters, then reassembles as it identifies components.
Weller believes the new spectrometer will move root disease research into new frontiers, to help make direct seeding a more successful option for growers.
By understanding the chemical messages in the soil, it will be possible to “camouflage” roots from detection by root disease organisms and more rapidly engage the friendly micro-organisms in the defense of the root system, Weller says.
But the promise of the bioanalytical research isn’t restricted to wheat and barley or to direct seeding technologies. This new spectrometer can be applied to a very broad base of scientific problems in both plants and animals, as well as to many microscopic life forms.
This new equipment allows direct, hands-on training for undergraduate and graduate-level students, and for young scientists at WSU to learn some of the latest techniques of analytical chemistry, said Bonsall.
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