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Research Orchard, Bee Genomics, Wheat Breeding

Posted by | November 8, 2006

It’s a Fact

Washington asparagus is produced on approximately 10,000 acres in the Columbia Basin, the Yakima Valley and the Walla Walla area. About 53 million pounds of asparagus are produced each year, bringing close to $28 million to the state’s economy.

New Digs for Tree Fruit Research

WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center has a new research orchard. Dr. Jay Brunner, director of the Center, said that the 150-acre site will be used for, among other projects, an expanded integrated pest management research program and the apple breeding program.

“The larger area… will allow us to work in larger blocks and modern orchards so that our results are reflective of what most of the industry’s doing. We’re thinking of this site not solely as a tree fruit site—although that will always be the predominant focus—but we’re also thinking about blueberries, currants, and raspberries as alternative crops in this area, and, of course, grapes.” To that end, Brunner hopes to establish interdisciplinary research teams, especially to study organic production. The site contains 80 acres of certified-organic apple orchards. The center’s old site, once surrounded by orchards but now encroached upon by a growing Wenatchee, was sold to the Wenatchee School District.

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Bee Genomics

Bees and other insects provide the U.S. with $57 billion in pollination services, so it’s no wonder that Apis mellifera–known to most folks as the honey bee–is one of only four insects to have its DNA analyzed. Entomology Professor Walter S. (Steve) Sheppard collaborated with an international consortium of researchers to sequence the honey bee genome and results of that work were published recently in the prestigious journal Nature.

While the honey bee is economically important for its production of the sweet stuff, bees have an even greater economic importance because they are prolific pollinators. But bee keepers face a potentially devastating problem in the mite, Varroa destructor, which kills the valuable pollinators and which are now pesticide resistant. Professor Sheppard is addressing that problem by selectively breeding honey bees that are tolerant of the mite. The “huge amount of data” provided by the newly sequenced genome will help shed light on bee behavior and the impact of introduced bees, such as Africanized bees, Sheppard said. Africanized bees are mite tolerant and are a valuable source of genetic material for an improved strain of honey bee.

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Biotech Wheat the Old Fashioned Way

If there were a way to genetically modify a plant without introducing foreign DNA, the public and critics of genetically modified organisms could be much more receptive, thus ensuring the modified plant a place in the market. That’s precisely what Crop and Soil Sciences Professor Stephen Jones has done to breed new varieties of wheat. Jones is a leader in gene-marker assisted selective breeding. Gene markers are fragments of DNA that reliably identify particular genes. Jones is using the technique to breed fungi-resistant organic wheat. He searches the fields for plants that appear to have desirable traits and then analyzes their DNA in his lab to make sure.

Appropriate candidates are then selectively bred to produce a new strain of wheat that is resistant to the fungi that infest organic fields. Traditional selective breeding is a slow and often hit-or-miss process. With the use of gene markers, however, the process is considerably faster, shaving years off development time.

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