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WSU Names Bacteria After Retired Enologist

PULLMAN, Wash. — Charles W. Nagel retired from the Washington State University faculty in 1992, but he’s far from forgotten.

Indeed, a former colleague has immortalized Chas as he is widely known by naming a novel species of bacteria isolated from a wine after him.

Lactobacillus nagelii was discovered by another WSU professor, Charles G. Edwards.

It was Edwards’ second discovery of a novel species of Lactobacillus within two years. He named the first Lactobacillus kunkeei in honor of Ralph Kunkee, a biochemist and former enologist at the University of California, Davis.

Lactobacillus is a genus made up of rod shaped bacteria that produce lactic acid as a product of metabolism. “They are one of the few groups of microorganisms that can grow in wine and grape juice,” Edwards said. “Both of those environments are very inhospitable to most microbes.”

Researchers are studying Lactobacillus because they are one of the causes of “stuck,” or sluggish, alcoholic fermentations sometimes encountered by winemakers. The problem is of increasing interest because many winemakers are trying to reduce or eliminate sulfite from their wines. Sulfites have been used since ancient times to control spoilage bacteria.

Discovery of Lactobacillius nagelii came as part of Edwards’ ongoing search for unidentified spoilage bacteria. With funding from the Washington Wine Advisory Committee and the Northwest Center for Small Fruit Research, Edwards’ lab is screening samples from stalled fermentation batches for bacteria that inhibit the growth of yeast, the microorganism that ferments juice into wine.

When the Lactobacillius nagelii bacterium was discovered, Edwards sent a culture to Matthew D. Collins at the University of Redding in the United Kingdom. Collins is a pioneer in the type of genetic analyses necessary to identify Lactobacillius species.

“He performed genetic analysis, which confirmed the idea that this culture represented a novel species,” Edwards said. Another six to eight months of biochemical research confirmed that the organism is unique.

As with his first discovery, Edwards decided to honor someone who devoted a lifetime in wine research. He chose to honor Nagel, who devoted 30 years to enology research.

Edwards said Nagel, along with WSU viticulturist Walter Clore and agricultural economist Raymond Folwell, helped build the foundation for the modern industry in Washington.

Edwards joined the WSU faculty in 1989, working first in Prosser, then moving to Pullman in 1991. In that short time, Washington’s wine grape production has expanded from 11,000 acres to 27,156 acres. Wine grapes brought the state’s growers an estimated $63.7 million in 1999.

Nagel was a member of the WSU faculty from 1960-71, and returned in 1973 after a two-year hiatus during which he was research director for United Vintner’s Inc., in Asti, Calif. He received his doctorate in food microbiology from the University of California at Davis, in 1960.

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