College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

A symphony of soil signals in wheat science

At the USDA Wheat Health, Genetics and Quality Research Unit at Washington State University, senior scientist Robert Bonsall and research leader David Weller use the new Synapt G2-Si HD mass spectrometer to understand the intricate web of chemical signals that drive the health and development of wheat (Seth Truscott/WSU Photos).
At the USDA Wheat Health, Genetics and Quality Research Unit at Washington State University, senior scientist Robert Bonsall and research leader David Weller use the new Synapt G2-Si HD mass spectrometer to understand the intricate web of chemical signals that drive the health and development of wheat (Seth Truscott/WSU Photos).

Scientists at Washington State University are unveiling a new high-tech tool that reveals secrets in the soil for healthier wheat.

On Tuesday, March 21, researchers in the Wheat Health Genetics and Quality Research Unit will cut the ribbon for a new, advanced mass spectrometry system. The instrument detects and identifies molecules based on their mass, allowing the team of university and USDA-Agricultural Research Service scientists, for the first time, to study the metabolome of wheat—millions of tiny compounds involved in the symbiosis of wheat, soil and microbes. Their discoveries could help farmers raise crops that are highly resistant to devastating root diseases and environmental stresses.

“In wheat, most of the action goes on below ground, out of sight,” said David Weller, plant pathologist and head of USDA’s Pullman wheat research team. He studies how thriving roots and healthy soils protect wheat from disease.

The new, $700,000 liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) system, built by the Waters Corporation of Milford, Mass., replaces the unit’s aging instrument, giving Weller’s team a powerful tool to see what happens at the root level.

“This new mass spectrometer helps us understand the chemical symphony going on in the roots,” he said. “It’s been a black box up until now.”

Senior scientist Robert Bonsall views a soil sample to be studied in the new mass spectrometer.

Signals in the soil

Weller’s team sees promise in the natural antibiotics found in the symbiotic zone of roots, soil and microbes, known as the rhizosphere.

“In the soil, organisms use chemical signals to communicate,” said Robert Bonsall, a senior scientist at WSU who has studied the rhizosphere for nearly 25 years. “When a plant is attacked by a disease, it sends out an SOS. Bacteria that produce antibiotics come to the plant’s rescue.”

To understand this exchange, Bonsall and Weller look for chemical clues called biomarkers.

“All of these compounds, some from the plant, some produced by micro-organisms, dramatically affect the health of the roots and the productivity of the plant,” said Weller. “It’s a beautifully coordinated symphony of chemical signals, protecting the plant and helping its growth. Hundreds of thousands of organisms contribute to it.”

Mass-spectrometry discoveries could lead to healthier, disease-resistant wheat.

Partnership with Waters

The new instrument, a Synapt G2-Si HD Mass Spectrometer combined with an ACQUITY Ultra Performance Liquid Chromatography system, was purchased last fall, following a successful test by WSU and Waters Corporation experts that compared natural antibiotic levels in soils and on wheat roots from Lind, Wash

The Pullman wheat research unit’s work with Waters goes back decades. Bonsall and Weller say their partnership with the company’s engineers and experts has been critical to their studies.

“Our collaboration with Drs. Weller and Bonsall illustrates how the Synapt system’s enhanced capabilities will enable the laboratory to ‘decode’ more soil components than ever before in the rhizosphere,” said Ken Rosnack, principal business development manager at Waters Corporation.

“This is the first time that ion mobility—a feature of the Synapt system which distinguishes molecules based on their size, shape, and ionic charge—has been applied to this area of biomarker research,” Rosnack added. “We’re very excited that WSU will use this technology to probe the soil metabolome and advance our understanding of rhizosphere microbiology and plant pathology.”

  • The Plant Metabolomics Celebration begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 21, at the Biotechnology-Life Sciences Building (BLS 402) on the WSU Pullman campus. Public and media are welcome. The celebration includes short talks by WSU and USDA scientists and representatives of Waters Corp, as well as lunchtime discussions and a lab tour.
  • To attend, RSVP to David Weller at or by calling (509) 335-6210. View a celebration agenda here.

CAHNRS is more than agriculture. With 24 majors, 19 minors, and 27 graduate level programs, we are one of the largest, most diverse colleges at WSU. CAHNRS Cougs are making a difference in the wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities, improving ecological and economic systems, and advancing agricultural sciences.

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Inspiring Teamwork – Arron Carter

It started with a car, a ’69 Corvette Stingray to be exact.

When Arron Carter, the director of the Washington State University Winter Wheat Breeding Program, was in high school his agricultural teacher had a ’69 Corvette Stingray. Every year this teacher would let his favorite senior take the car to senior prom. Carter had never taken an agriculture class before, but he knew he wanted to drive that car.

“Well, if I’m going to be the favorite senior,” Carter said to himself, “I’d better start taking some ag classes.”…

Read More: Inspiring Teamwork – Arron Carter


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Agricultural Research Center

Mission Statement

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.

Research Update

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In each of the last three years (2014, 2015 and 2016), the field screening process has involved over 80 varieties, 2,000 advanced breeding lines and more than 35,000 individual plots from WSU cereal breeding and variety evaluation programs. Collectively, varieties included in these trials represent over 95 percent of the wheat acreage planted in Washington.

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