College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

Better Biofuels, Desert Wheat

Grant Primes Research Engines for Better Biofuels

Washington State University has received a five-year, $40 million grant to help develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and chemicals. The award was announced Sept. 28 by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Overcoming obstacles that prevent wood-based jet fuel and petrochemical substitutes from being economically viable is the focus of the project. Led by WSU, it brings together a consortium of scientists from universities, government laboratories, and private industry. The consortium is called the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA).

Vilsack announced that the University of Washington will receive a similar grant. Approximately two-thirds of the funding of these grants is directed to research, with the remainder targeted to education, outreach and public awareness. “This is an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively priced, American-made biofuels industry,” Vilsack said. “Public-private partnerships like these will drive our nation to develop a national biofuels economy that continues to help us grow and out-compete the rest of the world while moving our nation toward a clean energy economy.”

Wood waste could become an important source of aviation biofuel.
Wood waste could become an important source of aviation biofuel.

The WSU grant aims to address the need for a domestic biofuel alternative for U.S. commercial and military air fleets. NARA researchers envision developing a viable, aviation fuel industry using wood and wood waste in the Pacific Northwest based on the region’s oil refining and distribution assets.

The project will focus on increasing the profitability of wood-based fuels through development of high-value, bio-based co-products to replace petrochemicals that are used in products such as plastics. A major objective will be to better understand and use wood lignin, a glue-like material constituting up to about 30 percent of some woods. Lignin is often considered to be one of the key issues adversely affecting the economic viability of wood-derived plant chemical products.

“With some new strategies coupled with the diversity of skills represented on the NARA team, we believe we can begin to resolve the issues that have prevented wood-based biofuels and other petrochemical substitutes from being economically viable,” said Norman G. Lewis, Regents Professor and director of WSU’s Institute for Biological Chemistry. “If we are successful, the potential to begin to replace the natural resources jobs lost in the region over the past several years is very high.”

Lewis and Michael P. Wolcott, LP Distinguished Professor of Wood Materials and director of WSU’s Institute for Sustainable Design, will lead NARA. “To truly realize a new industry, we must begin considering all of the factors that make any major industry run successfully,’’ said Wolcott. “One aspect of NARA’s strength lies in the integration of products, market and workforce development, all with an eye toward the success of the existing forest industry and its relationship with communities and the environment.”

–Kathy Barnard and Tina Hilding

More information about NARA, its work and its partners is available at http://www.nararenewables.org.

A longer version of this story is available online at http://bit.ly/q8Exxs.

Breeding Better Wheat

I spent this past summer trudging through six-mile treks each weekend with two good friends. We walked along the edge of wheat fields outside of town. (My friends and I qualify as middle-aged ladies, so the walks counted as significant exercise. Sad but true.)

Wheat harvest on the Palouse.
Wheat harvest on the Palouse.

One of the interesting things about the walks was simply observing the growth and ripening of the wheat fields by which we passed. We depend on wheat for bread, pasta, animal feed, noodles and–perhaps most importantly–fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. Watching a whole field of wheat grow up, turn from green to gold, and finally be harvested is a magical production that never grows old, at least for us hayseeds.

In the old days wheat grew tall, some of it to a height of six feet. But around the time I was born, wheat researchers launched the “Green Revolution” that created wheat with much shorter stature. That was important because it meant farmers could pour on as much fertilizer and water as they were able without leading to wheat so tall it would topple over. In total, the Green Revolution roughly doubled the amount of wheat available worldwide–quite an accomplishment, but one of the truly astounding aspects of technical progress to which we adapt so quickly we soon take it for granted.

Recently I had the good fortune to talk with a wheat breeder who knows the history of the Green Revolution and who is immersed in the next wave of research promising new progress for wheat production. Professor Kulvinder Gill is an ag researcher who made time to help this rockhead learn about both what the Green Revolution accomplished and one unfortunate side effect it may have introduced into many strains of wheat.

“We believe that what reduced the height of the wheat also compromised a plant hormone called gibberellic acid (GA for short),” Gill told me. “One way of putting it is that we want a different way of dwarfing the wheat plant that leaves the GA alone.”

One of the great challenges many wheat farmers face is growing wheat where rain is scarce. (Think of the Dakotas or west Texas. My eyes smart from the dust just cogitating on what a July afternoon there can be like.) About 85 percent of American wheat comes from low rainfall areas–places where what’s called “desert wheat” would be a big help to farmers and therefore to all of us whom farmers feed.

One way to help wheat grow well in low-rainfall areas is to plant it two to three times deeper than you would elsewhere. Water is indeed down at that level in the soil, but of course if you plant at depth it means the little seedlings have to have the “oomph” to grow to the surface and emerge. “We also want a big root system for dry conditions,” Gill told me. “More roots so that each wheat plant draws in more moisture.”

Beyond that, it’s good to have roots that go downward, rather than spread laterally. Competing with a neighboring plant by having the first wheat plant send its roots laterally into a neighboring plant’s domain doesn’t do either of them any good. So downward-growing roots are what Gill and his colleagues hope to promote.

There’s a lot of painstaking work involved in breeding wheat. Researcher and their assistants use small scalpels to remove part of the reproductive organs on heads of wheat, then wait and finally cross-fertilize them with another strain. The offspring of wheat produced this way has to be raised for four or five succeeding generations in order for it to breed true. Even in greenhouses where wheat will grow year round, that involves a couple of years in itself.

“But I’m sure that in 5 to 10 years we’ll have ‘desert wheat’ that’s ready to be planted by farmers,” Gill told me. In many parts of both the U.S. and the developing world, wheat that can flourish with little rain would be most welcome. A lot more than cinnamon rolls are at stake.

–Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Learn more about Gill’s research at http://bit.ly/rllaIW.

If you aren’t reading the Rock Doc in your local paper, ask for her — or check out Dr. Peter’s weekly column online at rockdoc.wsu.edu or on Twitter @RockDocWSU.

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Dr. Kirsten Peters

The Rock Doc is a nationally syndicated newspaper column written by Dr. Kirsten Peters, covering many scientific and research related topics in a upbeat and entertaining fashion. Dr. Peter’s humor and anecdotes help to bring these stories to a public audience by showing how they affect everyday life. The most recent articles are linked below.



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Agricultural Research Center

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The goal of the Washington State University CAHNRS Office of Research is to promote research beneficial to the citizens of Washington. The Office of Research recognizes its unique land-grant research mission to the people of Washington and their increasing global connections. The CAHNRS Office of Research provides leadership in discovering and applying knowledge through high-quality research that contributes to a safe and abundant food, fiber, and energy supply while enhancing the sustainability of agricultural and natural resource systems.

Featured Research

By Rebecca Phillips

Bad news in the media got you down? News consumers have only themselves to blame, says new research showing that it’s actually buying habits that drive negative press.

The research looks at the negative news phenomenon through the prism of economic science. And while previous studies have focused on the supply side by examining media output, this analysis is among the first to investigate a negative news bias from the consumer or demand side. MORE

By Sylvia Kantor

Pullman, Wash. – You generally don’t find livestock among the hills of the Palouse region of eastern Washington where grain is grown. But wheat farmers Eric and Sheryl Zakarison are changing that – and making a profit.

On 100 of their 1,300 family owned acres, they are experimenting with a rather unconventional scheme for the region – growing wheat, peas, perennial grasses like alfalfa and sheep in a tightly integrated system. MORE

 

WM-vine-wilt

By Scott Weybright

The watermelon crop has declined dramatically in Washington because of disease. But Washington State University researchers are developing a solution that involves grafting watermelon plants onto squash and other vine plant rootstocks.

“We’ve lost about a third of our state’s watermelon production over the last 10 years because of Verticillium wilt,” said Carol Miles, a professor of vegetable horticulture at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon. “Growers have switched to other crops that are less susceptible.” MORE

Robby Rosenman

By Sylvia Kantor

Gender and personality matter in how people cope with physical and mental illness, according to a paper by a Washington State University scientist and colleagues at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

Men are less affected by a single-symptom illness than women, but are more affected when more than one symptom is present. The number of symptoms doesn’t change how women are affected, according to Robert Rosenman, WSU professor in the Department of Economic Sciences. MORE

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Conservation buffers please the eye, protect the landscape, says WSU researcher

By Seth Truscott

PULLMAN, Wash. – Researchers know that adding natural buffers to the farm landscape can stop soil from vanishing. Now a scientist at Washington State University has found that more buffers are better, both for pleasing the eye and slowing erosion.
Linda Klein, a recent doctoral graduate in WSU’s School of the Environment, worked with six other researchers at the university, plus one at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Moscow (Idaho) Forestry Sciences Laboratory, to explore the role that buffers – strips or clumps of shrubs, trees and natural vegetation – play in the landscape and in people’s visual preferences.
Klein surveyed Whitman County residents to see if conservation features made for more scenic fields and valleys. She found that Palouse residents prefer more nature with their wheat fields.MORE






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MudflatImpact: Burrowing Shrimp and Invasive Eelgrass

Shellfish production in Washington is a $60 million a year industry. Several major pests plague this industry, resulting in major crop loss. One of the most important pests is subterranean burrowing shrimp. These shrimp bioturbate (stir up) the sediment, causing the oysters to sink and die. For the past 60 years the industry has been using the insecticide Sevin to control this pest, but due to lawsuits its use was phased out in 2012. Without alternative control for shrimp, tens of millions of dollars in annual crop revenue will be lost and the industry will quickly lose its economic viability in southwestern Washington.

PoultryFarmImpact: The National Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center

The Environmental Protection Agency has identified agriculture as the leading contributor of pollutants to the nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs. These reports often do not separate animal agriculture from other agricultural enterprises, but they do note that pathogens, nutrients, and oxygen-depleting substances associated with manure are three of the top five pollutants. Some emerging issues related to manure management include: endocrine disruptors (hormones), pharmaceuticals (antimicrobials), and antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Adopting farm practices that minimize the environmental impact is important for food safety.

BiosolidsImpact: Biosolids and Compost

Biosolids are the solids produced during municipal wastewater treatment. Composts are made from a variety of organic materials, including both urban and agriculture sources such as yard trimmings, biosolids, storm debris, food waste or manure, and food processing residues. While these materials have traditionally been viewed as waste, they can play a valuable role as soil amendments in urban and agricultural settings. They provide nutrients and organic matter and they sequester carbon, thereby conserving resources, restoring soils, and combating climate change.

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Alumni & Friends

The WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) Office of Alumni & Friends is a service unit dedicated to promoting philanthropic support for the college’s research, teaching, and extension programs.

CAHNRS seeks $190 million through the Campaign for WSU. This unprecedented fundraising goal is managed through the CAHNRS Office of Alumni and Friends. If you would like to learn more about the CAHNRS’s fundraising priorities, please explore our website or meet the team.

Funding Priorities

Through the Campaign for Washington State University, CAHNRS and WSU Extension will play a major role in defining answers to complex issues through truly big ideas—feeding the world, powering the planet, and ensuring the health and well-being of children, families, and communities. See below to learn more about how we are addressing these issues in our strategic and on-going  initiatives and development of world-class students.

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CAHNRS Alumni & Friends
PO Box 646228
Pullman, WA 99164-6228
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Faculty & Staff

Important Dates and Deadlines

March 26, 2015
  • CAHNRS Honors – SEL Event Center
March 26-27, 2015
  • Spring NBOA – Ensminger

April 6, 2015

  • Signed Faculty and AP Annual Reviews
September 10, 2015
  • Fall Festival

 

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Contact Dean’s Office:
Hulbert 421
PO Box 646242
Pullman WA 99164-6242
deans.cahnrs@wsu.edu
509-335-4561

Lisa Johnson:
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Hulbert 421C
PO Box 646242
Pullman WA 99164-6242
janowski@wsu.edu
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Washington State University

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