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Phenomics, Oreganato, Undergrad Research

Posted by | February 29, 2012

Welcome Back to the Future

Mike Kahn, a scientist in WSU's Institute of Biological Chermistry
Mike Kahn, a scientist in WSU's Institute of Biological Chemistry

With an impish grin, Mike Kahn led a group of visitors into an old greenhouse on the Washington State University campus in Pullman. Kahn is a scientist in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, the home of a group of researchers probing the secrets of plant life to help ensure the world’s burgeoning population has enough to eat. “Welcome to the future,” his expression seemed to say. Inside, the group of reporters and videographers was treated to an amazing site: a boxy contraption moving over rows of small green plants, stopping at intervals and emitting flashes of colored light.

The contraption contains two cameras and is literally looking at the plants in a new way. “In theory,” Kahn said, “we can breed by following the genes that contribute to the development of desirable traits in a plant.” Desirable traits is a sweeping term plant breeders use to describe everything from yield and size to disease and drought resistance. “But for the foreseeable future, there is no technology that is going to get us to each gene, as there are on the order of 30,000 genes in each plant. That means there are a lot of possibilities. This is the problem breeders have. They need to sort through a lot of gene possibilities to find the ones they want. We are looking at plants in another way, because there are certain things about the genes that can be evaluated by using cameras that can look at lots of whole plants rapidly and efficiently.”

Welcome to the new science of phenomics. Phenomics is the study of phenotypes, the observable characteristics of an organism. The phenotype is the result of a complex relationship between the organism’s genome–its specific set of inheritable characteristics–and its environment, which influences the expression of that genetic inheritance. Phenomics is critical because it connects the dots between an organism’s genetic potential and how it actually performs in a specific environment. Phenomics and the use of modern data acquisition technologies to describe many phenotypes simultaneously is in its infancy. WSU’s phenomics center is one of the few in the world, and this instrument is the first of its type. WSU phenomics project pushes toward the breeders’ goal of assessing a plant’s genetics by actually subjecting plants to some of the environmental conditions growers and their crops are likely to encounter and measuring how they respond.

The flashing contraption: the underside of WSU's phenomics camera
The flashing contraption: the underside of WSU's phenomics camera. Photos by Brian Clark/WSU; high-res versions available upon request.

“It’s really welcome back to the future,” Kahn said. “For thousands of years, people have evaluated the utility of a plant by looking at it to assess things like fruit and kernel size and color–all the things that make a crop plant desirable. That’s sort of what we’re doing here” –he gestured at the flashing contraption– “but now we’re able to optically screen a large number of plants for specific traits.”

The phenomics instrument works by emitting very brief, very bright flashes of light at plants in a dark growth room, and then photographing the fluorescence the plants re-emit as a result. This fluorescence is a byproduct of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll in the leaves absorbs the flashes of light and then discharges the excess light energy. Fluorescence is one of the ways that plants defend themselves, since too much light energy can cause damage. A great deal can be learned by measuring the re-emission rate, because different individuals of the same species of plant can re-emit light at different rates and the same plant may re-emit light differently at different times of the day or under different growth conditions.

This variation interests Kahn and other scientists at WSU, including his colleagues Helmut Kirchhoff, Asaph Cousins, Michael Neff, and Gerry Edwards. Photosynthesis is poorly understood, but we do know that, at most, plants only capture about one percent of the energy available to them. “Imagine if we could get plants to be more efficient in turning that energy into more plant. We might be able to turn that into higher yields of food, into biofuel, or into other valuable products,” Kahn said.

This is new territory, but the WSU scientists are optimistic that their work will pay off. “A lot of what we do at WSU, including this kind of research focused on basic plant biology and understanding photosynthesis, is trying to grasp how plants do what they do,” Kahn said. “We are trying to stay ahead of the curve and give producers options for the future. We’ve got a growing population, a changing climate, a shifting water supply–all of these things mean producers need science at their backs to help them evaluate their options as they go forward. We’ve got to eat! Looked at over centuries, getting enough to eat has rarely been easy. And looking forward, it is going to take a lot of innovating to keep up.”

–Brian Clark

Learn more about WSU’s world-class leadership role plant biology by visiting the Institute of Biological Chemistry web site at

Falling in Love All Over Again: A Cheesy Valentine’s Day Story

WSU Creamery workers Breanne Hensley and Megan Finch enjoying the flavor of new Oreganato.
WSU Creamery workers Breanne Hensley and Megan Finch enjoying the flavor of new Oreganato.

What happens when tomato meets oregano in the WSU Creamery? Hundreds tried to name the delicious result, but there was only one clear winner: Oreganato. The new cheese flavor, made with loving care by the WSU students who produce world-famous Cougar Gold, was released on Valentine’s Day.

The two ingredients actually met and fell in love at the WSU Creamery more than a year ago, but kept their relationship under wraps until it was formally named last November, said Russ Salvadalena, creamery manager. He and his student workers spent much of 2011 collecting and selecting suggestions for the new cheese’s name; in November, customers voted for their favorite cheese name.

Oreganato. Photos by Brian Clark/WSU; high-res versions available upon request.
Oreganato. Photos by Brian Clark/WSU; high-res versions available upon request.

Hayley Hitchcock of Bozeman, Montana, a business major at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, submitted the winning name for this match made in cheese heaven. Hitchcock was in Pullman last February because she had heard what a wonderful school WSU was from Julie Jensen Thomas, a WSU graduate and former Ferdinand’s employee. While in Pullman, Hitchcock visited Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe, the retail outlet for the WSU Creamery, and submitted her name for the new cheese flavor.

For submitting the winning name, Hitchcock received some cans of cheese from the WSU Creamery just in time for the winter holidays. Since a new batch of Oreganato had yet to be produced, none of the cheeses she received were of the new flavor. “I will have to order some Oreganato in February, for sure!” Hitchcock said.

Oreganato is available at Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe on the Pullman campus and online at Quantities are limited, so order early to ensure you don’t miss out on this delicious flavor.

–Brian Clark

WSU Plant Genomics, Biotechnology Program Accepting Applications for Undergraduate Summer Research Experience

Each summer, eight undergraduate students from throughout the nation will have the opportunity to study plant biology in cutting-edge labs at Washington State University. Horticultural genomics Professor Amit Dhingra, the leader of a new Research Experience for Undergraduates program funded by the National Science Foundation, said they are accepting applications from students wanting real-world experience in plant genomics and biotechnology. Undergraduates accepted into the REU program will receive a $5,000 stipend for the 10-week session, free housing, and travel assistance to and from Pullman, Washington. To apply, or for more information, visit

An undergraduate researcher working in a plant sciences lab at WSU.
An undergraduate researcher working in a plant sciences lab at WSU.

The REU program involves a team of eight faculty members who mentor students in genomics, biotechnology, plant breeding, plant pathology and physiology, and computational biology. Students will be able to participate in ongoing projects while gaining research experience using state-of-the-art tools. Students will take workshops in science writing and ethics; career development and team work; data collection, analysis and visualization; critical thinking; intellectual property and patents; and presentation skills.

“We’ve put together a world-class team of mentors who will work with students one-on-one and in small groups over the 10-week summer research experience,” Dhingra said. With biotechnology and plant genomics as the main focal points of the summer workshop, students will work with scientists who have collectively trained more than 200 undergraduates as pioneers in research.

“We encourage students interested in everything from computer science to ecology to apply for this experience,” Dhingra said. “More than ever, the world needs great scientists who can think critically and creatively to tackle global problems. We’re in a world with a growing population, a changing climate, and some severe environmental issues to address, and we need young people who are motivated and passionate to step up and help us solve these problems.”

–Brian Clark

To apply or learn more about the new Research Experience for Undergraduates, visit