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WSU’s On Solid Ground: Plant Mutations, Food Labels, Rebuilding Soil, and Bioenergy Workforce

Posted by | November 6, 2014

November 2014

Center helps scientists measure light to find mutations

Plants use light during photosynthesis. But they also give off light, though in amounts so small we can’t see it. The amount of light changes based on the plant’s environment and genetic makeup.

Scientists at the WSU Phenomics Center can detect this light, or fluorescence, measure it and use it to identify genetic mutations in plants. The center is now available to researchers on campus and beyond.

This false color image shows the differences in fluorescence that the phenomics cameras see when they scan plants.
This false color image shows the differences in fluorescence that the phenomics cameras see when they scan plants.

Though the center has been working with WSU researchers since 2011 – see earlier article – technicians and managers are ready to offer analytical services to scientists from other universities and research centers.

Wholesale scanning saves time

“This facility should really help anybody studying plants,” said Helmut Kirchhoff, assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry and the facility’s manager. “We can screen a large number of plants under controlled conditions and do it fairly quickly.”

The lab can measure how a plant handles drought or other stress, detect genetic mutations and determine their effects.

“We don’t work on a molecular level,” Kirchhoff said. “We look at the plant as a whole, and work non-invasively by using optical screening techniques. It saves a great deal of time for researchers who don’t have to do thorough genetic testing on all their plants to find what they’re looking for.”

The process reduces scientific bottlenecks. For example, researchers may want to study a particular mutation in wheat. But they would have to do genetic testing on many plants just to find the few that have the mutation they’re looking for.

Phenomics Center equipment can detect the mutation in less than a week without the expensive tests, according to scientific assistant Magnus Wood. After he programs an experiment’s protocols in the computer, which can take some time, the rest of the process is mostly automatic.

“It can even be checked remotely via a smartphone,” he said. “It works really well.”

Demand fuels expansion move

Wheat plants under colored light in the WSU Phenomics Center. The light stimulates a photosynthetic reaction in each plant, which can be measured to produce useful data for researchers.
Wheat plants under colored light in the WSU Phenomics Center. The light stimulates a photosynthetic reaction in each plant, which can be measured to produce useful data for researchers.

The lab works like a small greenhouse – around four meters by five meters in size. A robot overhead moves scaffolding to scan the plants. The robot shines various colored lights on each plant and then measures each plant’s fluorescent reaction. See a short video of the process at

The light reactions have tiny variations, which provide information that can tell which plants have the mutation a researcher is looking for.

“We call it a mutant hunt,” Kirchhoff said.

The center can, for example, have 50 wheat plants and place them under drought conditions. The equipment then measures how those plants conduct photosynthesis under such stress.

The machine uses two cameras, a high-quality digital camera and a fluorescence camera that measures photosynthesis.

So far, the center has worked with researchers studying wheat, tobacco, tomatoes and poplar trees, among other plants.

“It’s very flexible,” Kirchhoff said. “We’re excited about it and it’s been booked consistently since we opened it up to other scientists.”

He said the plan is to move the facility to a bigger space that can handle more than the current 200 plants.

For more information, or to book time in the facility, visit

—Scott Weybright

Food labels can reduce environmental impacts of livestock

RobinWhiteWith global food demand expected to outpace the availability of water by the year 2050, consumers can make a big difference in reducing the water used in livestock production.

“It’s important to know that small changes on the consumer side can help, and, in fact, may be necessary to achieve big results in a production system,” said Robin White, lead researcher of a Washington State University study appearing in the journal Food Policy.

White and WSU economist Mike Brady demonstrated that the willingness of consumers to pay a little more for meat products labeled to reflect a single, environmentally friendly production practice, such as water conservation, can add up to real change.

But such single-focus labels don’t yet exist, and labels that are available can be confusing and misleading.

Saving billions of gallons of water

The study shows that meat packers and retailers can play a key role in creating incentives for water-saving livestock production with labels that appeal to consumer values, White said.

White and Brady found that by paying 10 percent more for environmentally labeled meat products, consumers could bring about huge water savings in livestock production. In 2013, the U.S. produced 26 billion pounds of beef. Based on this number, White estimated that 76 to 129 billion gallons of water could be saved annually.

On the upper end, this equals the water used annually by 3.5 million people, roughly the population of the greater Seattle metropolitan area.

CowsLookingAtYouWhite, a postdoctoral scholar with the National Animal Nutrition Program, conducted the research as part of her doctoral studies in the Department of Animal Sciences at WSU.

Single vs. multiple label claims

“It is difficult to tease out a product’s true environmental impact from currently available labels,” said White. “Consumers may believe a label represents an environmental, health or animal welfare benefit but it’s difficult for them to really know.”

White and Brady were able to distinguish and compare consumers’ willingness to pay for meat products with labels that reflect a single attribute of reducing environmental impact and labels that represent a suite of attributes. Among the purely environmental labels, they evaluated different price premiums to find the sweet spot – where the lowest premium that consumers found palatable would also cover the costs to the producer of reducing water use.

The study also demonstrated that moderate price premiums for all cuts of meat that are acceptable to the average consumer will have a greater impact on water conservation than high premiums for a few niche products.

Growing greener grass

White explained that cow/calf operations represent an opportunity to significantly reduce water use in beef production. Feeding pregnant cows and suckling calves typically requires pasture or rangeland and represents a substantial maintenance cost. Yet, in the U.S., intensive, more efficient pasture management is not what it could be, White said.

Growing grass more efficiently through strategic irrigation, fertilization and grazing strategies can significantly improve yield and save water but adds to producer cost. However, the price premiums associated with environmental labels can offset those costs.

The livestock industry wants to demonstrate improvements in sustainability, White said. To do so, growers need consumer cooperation and willingness to pay a little more for products produced with a reduced environmental impact.

“This study demonstrated that consumers are willing,” White said. “Now we just need to connect the dots to accurately represent a product’s environmental impact in a way that is meaningful, understandable and attractive to consumers.”

—Sylvia Kantor

Rebuilding soil boosts threatened beet seed production

Growers in the fertile Skagit Valley have reported drops in historical beet seed yields of as much as 50 percent, according to Lindsey du Toit, vegetable seed pathologist at Washington State University. While disease and herbicides may cause isolated problems, researchers recently determined that poor soil is the prevailing factor.

“Our soils have a history of being very productive and rich in nutrients,” du Toit said. “But the longer and more you work the fields, the more the soils break down. So now [soils] cannot hold moisture and nutrients as well as they did to produce high-yielding crops.”

Lindsey du Toit in a beet field. (Photo courtesy of John Evans)
Lindsey du Toit in a beet field. (Photo courtesy of John Evans)

Working together the past few years, western Washington seed producers, growers and researchers have found that irrigation, plant food, compost and cover crops dramatically increase the quantity and quality of the $2 million-per-year beet seed crop, du Toit said.

Early results are dramatic

“I just heard from one grower who said seed germination increased from 4 percent in last year’s crop to 95 percent for this year’s crop of the same variety of beet,” she said. “The main things he is doing differently include irrigating and foliar feeding based on the soil moisture stress and monthly foliar analysis data we provided.”

Another grower reported an increase in seed yield of 500 pounds per acre for a crop that was irrigated, foliar fed and grown in soil that had a rye cover crop for two years to help improve soil health. This was compared to the same variety grown in an adjacent field that had no cover crop.

“That’s huge,” said du Toit. “Such extreme results may not turn out to be indicative of the norm, but they are really encouraging.”

Collaborating to save valuable crop

Northwest Washington produces 95 percent of the U.S. beet seed crop. As yields declined, du Toit said, “some seed companies started taking beet seed production contracts overseas to obtain enough seed to meet the growing worldwide demand for beets.

“That has had an adverse economic impact on Skagit Valley farmers, who are paid based on the quality and quantity of seeds they produce,” she said.

The factors responsible for the drop in beet seed production came to light last winter, she said, when growers, seed company representatives and researchers met at the WSU Mount Vernon Research Center to share their observations – and a few frustrations.

“It helped that I was hearing such a diversity of stories and gaining empirical evidence about what was happening in the companies’ seed beds on Whidbey Island and in the farmers’ beet seed fields across the valley,” said du Toit.

Testing and assessing

WSU Mount Vernon weed scientist Tim Miller conducted on-farm trials with herbicides while WSU entomologists Lynell Tanigoshi and Beverly Gerdeman examined beet seed crops for insect and mite pests.

During each month of the growing season, farmers brought in beet leaf samples for du Toit to send to a soil and plant testing lab, so any nutrient deficiencies could be detected and treated using foliar feeds.

To better understand soil moisture stress, WSU Skagit County Extension director Don McMoran set up a monitoring process in the spring. Twice-monthly soil moisture data were collected, allowing growers to see when fields were going into periods of moisture stress before the crops might show stress-related symptoms such as wilting.

“This gives farmers the information they need to time irrigations to provide relief during the drier mid-June to September period, when crops are being pollinated and need energy for flowering and seed set,” du Toit said.

WSU Whatcom County regional extension specialist Chris Benedict recently began meeting with beet seed growers to assess cover crops and composts as economical means to supply soil nutrition and structure.

“As a result of collaborative trials … over the past few years, growers are considering long-term investment in composts and cover crops … that are cold-tolerant and can provide sufficient biomass as winter cover crops,” du Toit said.

Improving soil while making a profit

Looking ahead, du Toit and her colleagues are optimistic about the potential for reduced moisture and nutrient stress and increased crop production as a result of soil-building efforts throughout Skagit, Whatcom, Island and Snohomish counties.

“Farming in the (Skagit) Valley is going through a paradigm shift,” she said. “We need to rebuild the soils that we have depleted over time.

“It’s exciting to see growers looking at irrigating, foliar feeding, adding compost and using cover crops,” she said.

“The challenge for us all is how to help work out agricultural systems that farmers can use to rebuild soils and still make a profit,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It will entail long-term investment in our soils.”

—Cathy McKenzie

Building a bioenergy workforce in the Pacific Northwest

High school through graduate-level students who want to learn more about bioenergy and the environment are taking cutting-edge classes in the northwest. Watch this latest Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest video on how our consortium partners at Oregon State University and the Ag Center of Excellence at Walla Walla Community College are impacting a future bioenergy workforce.



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