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WSU Undergrads Team Up for High-impact Genomics Research

Posted by struscott | November 30, 2007

Washington State University’s vibrant undergraduate research community is 14 researchers richer thanks to funding provided by the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences Office of Academic Programs and Agricultural Research Center.

In all, 13 research proposals have been funded, including five undergraduate genomics projects. All five genomics projects show promise of having a direct, positive impact on Washington’s multi-billion-dollar horticulture industry.

Six students , all advisees of Assistant Professor Amit Dhingra, are conducting the genomics research.

“All these projects build on existing knowledge,” said Dhingra. “What’s new here is the tools we’re using and the way we’re addressing problems by approaching them from the molecular level. These projects are practical applications of basic research.” The research the students are conducting employs a technique Dhingra developed that speeds up, simplifies, and makes genomic analysis economically feasible.

“The spirit of peer learning is really the way to go,” said Dhingra when asked why so many student researchers are under his advisorship. “Students inspire each other to push themselves. Plus, they see their fellow students having fun doing research, so they ask themselves, ‘Why couldn’t I do that?’ As a facilitator and collaborator, I answer, ‘You can do that!’”

“What Amit is doing here is really the model we want to ramp up college-wide,” said Kim Kidwell, associate dean of academic programs. “This is world-class science that introduces young scientists to the thrill of discovery, contributes to the industry, and helps us build a home-grown graduate program.”

Dhingra said he’s inspired by inquiring minds and encourages undergraduates to contact him about genomics research opportunities.

Genomics is the study of an organism’s entire genome, as well as the ways in which individual genes are expressed under a variety of conditions.

The five funded projects are:

“Control of Plant Growth Using Differing Light Regimes”: freshman engineering major Danielle Druffel will investigate using highly targeted frequencies of red, blue and green light in order to determine which frequencies affect plant growth and the underlying plant hormone biosynthesis. Druffel is collaborating with David Kramer, a professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, who is helping Druffel specify LEDs to best obtain the desired light regimes, while Druffel will use her engineering skills to design and build plant growth chambers. Druffel also has a grant from NASA that she’s using to help fund her research. This work may impact the micropropagation industry that produces millions of trees for the industry annually.

“Identification of Genomic Factors Underlying Differences in Morphology and Timing of Vitis Cultivars”: senior horticulture major Shane Moore brings the real-world concerns of wine grape growers into Dhingra’s lab in order to discover why different grape varieties flower and ripen at different times. The fact that, for instance, Riesling ripens at a different time than pinot noir has a significant economic impact on the wine industry, as it means pickers much be employed at intervals, rather than all at once, as with most crops. Moore is a wine maker at award-winning Merry Cellars in Pullman and hopes his research will enable producers to grow and harvest premium grapes more economically.

“Development of Fingerprinting Technology for Clonal Identification of Vitis Cultivars”: horticulture majors Dane Scarimbolo and Kathie Lee Nicholson aim to develop a technology to reliably identify wine grape cultivars using the genetic information carried on the maternal line in a plant’s chloroplasts. Currently, cultivars are identified by the shape of the leaf but, as the researchers point out, this is not a reliable technique as a single mutation could change the cultivar’s characteristics without changing leaf morphology. Scarimbolo and Nicholson are collaborating with WSU viticulturist Markus Keller and scientific assistant Gary Ballard, who will supply plant material for fingerprinting from WSU’s Grape Foundation Block.

“Chloroplast Genomics of World’s Apple Germplasm for Development of Maternal Lineage”: horticulture major Crystal Wildenstein will chart the journey of Washington’s number-one crop from its origins in Kazakhstan to its modern place as one of the world’s most popular tree fruits. By isolating and amplifying the genetic material in several different apple varieties, Wildenstein hopes to establish a clear line of descent from the Kazakhstani mother tree to the modern apple. Establishing this lineage will help scientists identify wild relatives of the apple that harbor desirable genetic traits. These traits may then be incorporated by breeders to create resistance to diseases and pests.

“Identifying the Genotypic Diversity of a Powdery Mildew Resistance Gene in Cherry”: microbiology major Fantahun Tedla is investigating the diversity of genetic expression of powdery mildew resistance in cherry. One of Tedla’s collaborators, Derick Jiwan, a graduate student in horticulture working in associate professor Dorrie Main’s bioinformatics lab, has already identified the gene responsible for powdery mildew resistance in rice and barley. Powdery mildew has been an intractable pest in a number of important crops. If the gene for resistance can be identified in cherry, the research will potentially have a major economic impact for growers. In addition to Jiwan, Tedla is collaborating with Jim Olmstead, the manager of WSU’s cherry breeding program, and grower Mark Roy of Moxee, Wash., both of whom are supplying plant material for genetic analysis.

These undergraduate researchers have all been “convicted” of benefitting science, society and themselves. “Seriously, though” said their advisor, horticultural genomicist Amit Dhingra, “we like to have fun, too. Without the fun, science is just another job.”

Danielle Druffel
Danielle Druffel

Shane Moore
Shane Moore


Dane Scarimbolo


Kathie Lee Nicholson

Crystal Wildenstein
Crystal Wildenstein

Fantahun Tedla
Fantahun Tedla

Learn more about genomics research at WSU by visiting the Genomics Lab Web site.