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WSU’s On Solid Ground- Safer Seafood, Chile, Spuds

Posted by l.meyer | September 11, 2013

Keeping Seafood Safe

Ellen Preece wants to know if microcystins, liver-damaging toxins produced by algal blooms in freshwater lakes, accumulate in Puget Sound seafood.

She’s not the only one who wants to know. Preece, a doctoral student in the School of Environment, is helping the Washington Department of Health determine whether seafood accumulates enough microsystins to be a health concern for populations who rely on locally harvested seafood to meet their protein needs.

Measuring contaminants in mussels. Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Measuring contaminants in mussels. Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Microcystins are a group of amino acids produced by cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, which thrive in freshwater lakes with high water temperatures and excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. The problems have been traced to sewage, fertilizer, detergent, and animal waste. Previously found only in freshwater lakes, microsystins are now showing up in saltwater.

Lessons from the California Coast

News that recent sea otter fatalities on the California coast have been attributed to microcystins coming from freshwater lakes alerted regional scientists to the possibility that the same toxins could show up in Puget Sound shellfish.

“The Washington Department of Health is very interested in understanding this potential exposure pathway,” said Joan Hardy, a toxicologist with the state agency. The Department of Health has partially funded Preece’s research because of concerns that lakes in Kitsap and Pierce Counties could be contributing to the growing risk.

Recent immigrants (often from Asia) regularly depend on shellfish they harvest from the shores of Puget Sound as a protein source. A USGS Western Ecological Research Center study suggests that consuming saltwater shellfish harvested near river mouths could pose a risk to people because of the freshwater toxins.

Preece is also investigating microsystins on the Colville Indian Reservation, where tribal members fish for rainbow trout in lakes with poor water quality.

A Matter of Detection

Preece’s research focuses on refining methods for detecting microsystins in seafood. Using mussels collected from Puget Sound, she is developing protocols for a technique that can determine which variants of the microcystins are present at what concentrations. She is also developing standard methods for health agencies to use a more common, less expensive tool to screen for microsystins in fish and shellfish.

Both techniques provide information that is critical for assessing whether seafood poses a potential health risk. “We’re counting on Ellen’s interest in the analytical issues associated with this problem so that the Department of Health can give sound advice to the public,” Hardy said.

The Climate Change Factor

According to Preece, if a changing climate results in higher lake temperatures, we could see increases in these toxic algal blooms in freshwater lakes. Hardy agrees that climate change may be at play and that monitoring is warranted. “We’re really just beginning to look at climate change and whether it’s a factor in freshwater toxic algal blooms. We need to carefully monitor lakes over time to see if there is a trend in toxicity linked to changing temperatures or other environmental factors.”

Preece conducts her research in the limnology lab of Dr. Barry Moore in the WSU Department of Natural Resource Sciences. Her work relies on partnerships with the Washington State Departments of Health and Ecology, departments of health in Kitsap and Pierce Counties, the King County Environmental Laboratory, and the Colville Confederated Tribes.

A recent recipient of a grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Endowment Fund at WSU and past recipient of an EPA STAR graduate fellowship, Preece expects to complete her doctoral work in 2014.

For more information about freshwater cyanobacteria blooms in Washington, go to

-Sylvia Kantor

Cultivating Leadership

Victoria Barth thrives at the intersection of people and plants, and is now helping fellow college students do the same. As a senior in crop and soil sciences at WSU, she was recently elected to lead the United States membership in one of the largest

Victoria Barth, USA-IAAS National Director on an excursion in Chile.
Victoria Barth, USA-IAAS National Director on an excursion in Chile.

international organizations for individuals pursuing careers in agriculture and related sciences.

The International Association of Students in Agricultural and Related Sciences (IAAS) is a student-run organization focused on international exchange programs and equipping college students with the tools needed to succeed in an increasingly global society. Colleen Taugher, advisor for the WSU International Development Club and IAAS chapter at WSU, nominated Barth for the national director position when asked to recommend a student with excellent communications and leadership skills at this year’s national summit in North Carolina. “Victoria has both of those talents and more, so we nominated her for the highest post and helped her campaign while we were in Raleigh,” Taugher said.

Because of Barth’s election, WSU will host the 2014 IAAS-USA Summit. More than 150 students from around the country will spend three and a half days touring Washington State agriculture, learning from guest speakers, and participating in trainings from professionals as a part of the Sustainable in Seattle conference.

Making New Connections

This summer Barth traveled from Pullman to Chile for the IAAS World Conference where representatives from nearly 20 countries spent two intense weeks discussing the constitution and potential for new exchange programs. Barth returned with a solid plan to implement the first U.S. exchange program with a partnership between Hawaii and Quebec. She works with two vice presidents and a board of directors, and is regularly on Skype with students around the world talking about global issues and IAAS. She said being the national director has not only helped reveal her strengths and the changes she can make to be an effective leader, but also provides an opportunity to help others tap into their strengths.

“Leadership promotes a work ethic and helps define you as a person,” Barth said, “but it really helps define your outlook on other people. It is so important to have that respect for people and values that you stick by no matter what.”

For more information about IAAS, the 2014 IAAS National Summit, or International Development Club, contact Victoria Barth at or visit

-Rachel Webber

WSU Grad Student Recognized by National Potato Council

When Rhett Spear first saw the message emailed to him from Washington, D.C., he figured it was a scam. “Congratulations,” it said. “You have been awarded a $10,000 research scholarship from the National Potato Council.”

“I emailed back and asked them to verify it,” recalled Spear, a Ph.D. horticulture student at WSU. “Eventually, I believed it was legitimate. To say I was happy would be an understatement.”

Encouraging Potato Research

A scholarship committee of potato growers recommended Spear for the award last month to bolster his ongoing research on 14 potato varieties. His project evaluates how cost-effective it is to grow them, how well they tolerate storage and resist bruising, and of course, how good they taste.

Mr. Potato Head celebrates with Rhett Spear. Photo by Shelly Hanks/WSU.
Mr. Potato Head celebrates with Rhett Spear. Photo by Shelly Hanks/WSU.

Council spokesman Mark Szymanski said the amount of the scholarship was doubled from previous years because of the potential the research has to benefit the entire industry.

Healthy Spud Habits

Spear’s scholarship comes in the wake of the low-carb diet craze that vilified potatoes as carbohydrate beasts. Now, as part of a much-needed makeover, “more and more research is showing that the potato is a healthy food. It’s the way they’re prepared that distinguishes the healthy from the not-so-healthy,” explained Spear, who has plenty of experience from the consumption angle.

With a history of growing up on a farm in the heart of spud country, Spear has enjoyed eating potatoes most of his life. “There’s so many more ways to eat them than as fries and chips. It’s the preparation that matters.”

Nutrition experts on, a website run by registered dieticians, applaud the spud’s comeback. “As low-carb diets become less common, the potato is being welcomed back to the dining room table, and with good reason. One medium potato essentially contains no fat, sodium or cholesterol, and is also quite low in calories.”

Rolling in Russets

As Americans regain their appetite for potatoes, it’s a good time for a 10-grand scholarship to give Spear’s research a lift. He’s evaluating 14 varieties of the russet, the nation’s number one-selling spud. And that’s narrowed down from a pool of 63, according to WSU’s Research and Extension website.

Potatoes are Washington State’s third-biggest crop, behind only apples and wheat. Combined, Washington and Idaho produce more than half of the nation’s annual supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. So there’s definitely a niche for potato research in this area.

Spear began his scientific inquiry in 2011, growing varieties at WSU’s Othello Research Station. The names range from Freedom and Sunrise to German Butterball. And then there’s one with a title reminiscent of the Star Wars droid R2-D2. It’s called A01010-1.

“Some varieties are so new that they don’t have names yet,” Spear explained. The potatoes are put through vigorous trials to determine how they rate. Potatoes that do well “graduate, get a name, and may eventually get released to growers,” he said.

Super Spud Search

Spear is monitoring the 14 russet varieties for bruising resistance, yields, storage durability, and taste. The tasting portion, which includes ratings for flavor, aroma, and texture, is done by volunteer testers at WSU’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Building. Four baked potato taste panels have already been held, and two more are planned this school year, he said. The results are showing some top scorers.

Perhaps one day the Teton or Classic russet–or even the A01010-1, renamed–will sprout into an edible prize of snowy white flesh that holds up in storage and fends off viruses and bruises alike.

Fascinating Versatility

In the meantime, Spear hopes the once-tattered image of the potato continues to improve. After all, not only is this misunderstood vegetable nutritious, he said, but how many other crops can you whip, fry, bake, serve stuffed as an entrée, sliced in a side dish, or molded into a dumpling?

“Having worked on a farm for much of my life, I’ve never come across a crop that’s so versatile, that comes in so many sizes, shapes and colors, and can be prepared in so many ways. I enjoy eating them. But researching them? It never gets boring.”

-Linda Weiford

This story was adapted from the September 5, 2013, issue of WSU News.