2013 Emerging Research Issues Awards | CAHNRS Office of Research | Washington State University

2013 Emerging Research Issues Awards

2013 Emerging Research Issues Awards

Return to Internal Competitive Grants

Estimating wheat yield through image analysis and spectral estimation of juvenile plants

PI: Arron Carter, Crop and Soil Sciences;
co-PIs: Helmut Kirchhoff, Institute of Biological Chemistry; Robert Lewis, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, WSU TriCities.


Wheat is an important food crop worldwide, and with the estimated increases in human population, wheat production must also increase to meet global demand. New spectral imaging processing allows us to view plant processes far beyond what the human eye can visualize. Additionally, automated image analysis can record individual plant growth, something too tedious for researchers to measure on multiple plants. Image analysis of spectral data collected on juvenile plants under greenhouse conditions will be correlated with data collected under field conditions. Our goal is to test whether spectral data collected under greenhouse conditions might be used to accurately identify wheat varieties that have high yield potential in the field. If we can do this, populations of young plants could be grown in the greenhouse and individual plants with predicted high yield potential could be selected for field testing, thereby increasing the potential of identifying productive new wheat varieties.

Functional Foods Targeting AMPK and Sirt1 to Reduce Adiposity

PI: Min Du, Animal Sciences;
co-PIs: Boon Chew and Meijun Zhu, Food Science.


Wine pomace, a major by-product of the flourishing wine industry in Washington State, has abundant polyphenolic compounds. AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is a key regulator of energy metabolism, and its activation promotes energy utilization and reduces fat accumulation. AMPK activity is inhibited in obese persons. Polyphenolic compounds, such as resveratrol, are strong activators of AMPK. Could we use polyphenolic compounds to develop functional foods which can boost AMPK activity in obese people? To test this, we will use obese mice to evaluate the effects of polyphenolic compounds in reducing adiposity, and the mechanistic links will be further explored in cultured cells. Proposed studies and the subsequent development of function foods using fruit byproducts such as pomace will clearly enhance the profitability of wine and other fruit processing industries. In addition, due to the prevalence of obesity, such functional foods will improve general health and reduce obesity related healthcare costs.

Phylogeography to improve resistance breeding against Columbia root-knot nematode

PI: Axel Elling, Plant Pathology;
Cooperators: Charles Brown, USDA-ARS, Prosser, WA; Russell Ingham, Dept. of Botany and Plant Pathology, Oregon State University; Loes de Nijs, Plant Protection Service, Wageningen, The Netherlands; Wim Wesemael, Inst. for Agricultural & Fisheries Research, Merelbeke, Belgium; Danny Coyne, Intl. Inst. of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan, Nigeria


Columbia root-knot nematode (CRKN) is a plant-parasitic nematode that infects a wide range of crops and causes significant damage. It is a major threat to sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. In potatoes, CRKN can lead to total yield losses due to tuber quality defects. Resistant plants would be the best solution for CRKN problems, but no resistant crop cultivars are currently available. Previous work identified two CRKN resistance genes in a wild potato species and these have been introduced into potato breeding lines. However, CRKN populations able to overcome this resistance under field conditions are present in the Pacific Northwest. This project is aimed at improving our understanding of how different CRKN populations are related and how variable they are. This is important because it will enable us to design better resistance breeding programs in affected crops and to develop more robust diagnosis and detection protocols for CRKN.

Bio-oil Stabilization for the Production of Aviation Fuels in Petroleum Refineries

PI: Manuel Garcia-Perez, Biological Systems Engineering;
co-PI: Su Ha, Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering

A concept for the creation of a new biomass economy particularly applicable to Washington State is based on distributed biomass pyrolysis units with fractional condensation capability located close to the biomass resources. These could produce a crude bio-oil containing precursors of transportation fuels that could then be stabilized in a rural refinery and further processed in an existing refinery to produce aviation fuel blending components. This project will investigate the stabilization of bio-oils with a low content of C1-C4 molecules that are obtained in a fractional condensation system by Amaron Energy. A bio-oil hydrogen treatment system will be built at a 250 mL scale, containing a high temperature/ high pressure stirred Parr reactor with devices to control temperature and hydrogen pressure. The physico-chemical properties of the stabilized oil produced in this reactor will be studied. The expected outcomes of this project are practical and cost effective technologies to produce stabilized bio-oils, which can be used as feedstocks in centralized refineries to produce fuel blending components.

Investing in Agricultural Sustainability Through the Creation of a Novel, Low Cost, Smart System to Measure Fluxes of Methane, Nitrous Oxide and Ammonia from Agricultural Ecosystems

PI: Kristen Johnson, Animal Sciences;
co-PIs: William Pan, Crops and Soil Sciences; Brian Lamb and Timothy VanReken, Laboratory for Atmospheric Research; Marc Beutel, Civil and Environmental Engineering.


Washington agriculture is known for its willingness to incorporate new technologies to achieve sustainable food production. To answer complex environmental questions related to the flux of inputs and outputs in agricultural ecosystems, we must understand the natural processes that are related to turnover of potential pollutants and have the ability to test new technologies and strategies and assess their effectiveness. We will develop a new smart system that can be deployed for long-term automated operation to measure the fluxes of important trace gasses. Our system will provide valuable information that can be used to evaluate the impact of management practices associated with animal production, cropping systems, soil biochemistry, fertilizer application, managed wetlands and water quality, composting and land fill management, and forestry practices. The success of this project will allow WA producers to reap benefits of nutrient use efficiencies, advance our capabilities for current research efforts, provide trained students, and provide foundational information to solve future challenges.

The genetic characterization and field utility of a new indeterminate species of cool season grain

PI: Stephen Jones, Crop and Soil Sciences, WSU Mt Vernon-NWREC;
co-PIs: Chris Benedict, Whatcom County Extension; Drew Corbin, Snohomish County Extension;
Collaborator: Matt Atterburner, Washburn University.


The dairy industry in Northwestern Washington has a $300M farmgate value. Most of the producers have relied on a model that brings feed, and even bedding, into the region from as far away as the Canadian Prairies and the US Midwest. This model is not sustainable and these producers could benefit from a new type of local feed crop. In the mid 1990s this lab, collaborating with Tim Murray’s group at WSU Pullman, began a series of very wide crosses between wheat and wild wheat species. The goals were to transfer into wheat characters such as disease resistance, increased water and nutrient removal from the soil, an indeterminate and/or perennial growth habit, increased plant size and biomass. This research was successful in developing wheat relatives with improved production characteristics, including some with good straw and forage properties.  One of these new types of wheat will be given a new species designation and tested for appropriate roles in novel rotations and farming practices designed to aid dairy producers in western Washington.

Grafting watermelon: A sustainable management practice for soilborne disease and a new value-added enterprise for Washington

PI: Carol Miles, Horticulture, WSU Mt Vernon-NWREC;
co-PIs: Debra Inglis, Plant Pathology, WSU Mt Vernon-NWREC; Suzette Galinato, Economic Sciences, WSU IMPACT Center.


Traditional soilborne disease management practices such as crop rotation and soil fumigation are often ineffective for Verticillium and other long-lived plant pathogens with a broad host range. Grafting vegetable plants onto Verticillium-resistant rootstocks has the potential to control Verticillium wilt on many vegetable crops in Washington. This project will include a graduate student who will work with a horticulturist, plant pathologist and agricultural economist to: (i) create an effective healing and acclimation protocol for successfully grafting watermelon seedlings; (ii) identify watermelon-compatible rootstocks with resistance to isolates of V. dahliae obtained from crops commonly rotated with watermelon in Washington; (iii) evaluate yield and fruit quality of grafted watermelon at field sites naturally-infested with V. dahliae; and, (iv) develop one crop budget on production of grafted watermelon transplants and a second crop budget on utilization of grafted watermelon as a disease management strategy.

Field Phenomics Platform Development

PI: Michael Pumphrey, Crop and Soil Sciences;
Cooperating PIs: David Brown and Arron Carter, Crop and Soil Sciences; Kim Garland-Campbell and Camille Steber, USDA-ARS; Scot Hulbert, Crop and Soil Sciences and Plant Pathology; Rick Knowles, Horticulture; Qin Zhang, Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems.


Phenotypes that quantitatively influence or determine nutrient and water use efficiency, yield or biomass, disease and pest resistance, heat tolerance, nutritional and end-use quality attributes, and other important characters are difficult and expensive to identify and manipulate in plant breeding and other crop improvement disciplines. Crop variety development and systems of genetic analysis have come a long way in recent years but the accurate, precise, and efficient determination of desirable plant phenotypes is widely recognized as a primary limitation to even greater progress. The inherent heterogeneity of crop production systems causes phenotypes to vary. Such variation is unavoidable, but increasing the ability to assess and explain variation represents a new frontier in plant improvement. This project is focused on developing a platform for monitoring plant growth condition in the field using state-of-the-art imaging, sensing, and positioning/guidance systems, which is capable of rapid, in situ, assessment of crop nutrient and water status, crop health, vigor and productivity, and other important characteristics. Initial application of this platform will focus on the two most economically important field crops in Washington: wheat and potatoes. Neither crop is ideally suited for some of these phenotypic characterizations in controlled environments. We are poised to leverage strengths in agricultural engineering, soil geography, crop physiology, genetics, and breeding to bring phenomics to the field in an interdisciplinary way.

Evaluating the Threat of Gumming Disease of Wheat and Grasses to the Pacific Northwest

PI: Brenda Schroeder, Plant Pathology;
co-PIs: Timothy Murray, Plant Pathology;
Collaborators: Axel Elling and Stacy Mauzey, Plant Pathology

The genus Rathayibacter is not a widely studied group of bacteria; however, many species of Rathayibacter infect grasses and are vectored by nematodes in the genus Anguina. Two species, R. rathayi and R. agropyri, occur in the U.S and are found in the Pacific Northwest. Another species, R. toxicus, is a Select Agent that is not present in the U.S. The objective of this proposal is to determine the prevalence and distribution of Rathayibacter and Anguina species associated with gumming disease of grasses in the PNW. This research is critical because the diseases caused by these pathogens could become serious problems in the U.S., and also because the causal agent and its vectors are closely related to R. toxicus and its vector A. funesta. This survey is the first step in determining the risk that these organisms, in combination with the introduction of R. toxicus, could pose to U.S. agriculture.

Identifying molecular markers for insecticide resistance in arthropod pests.

PI: Douglas Walsh, Entomology, Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center, Prosser;
co-PIs: Laura Lavine, Entomology, WSU Pullman; Tim Waters, Area Extension Educator; Sally O’Neal, Extension Outreach Specialist.


Resistance to pesticides is defined by an increase in the abundance of resistant genotypes of an organism in a population. Molecular methods for measuring the frequency of resistant genotypes are becoming reality. A WSU team has secured funding from the USDA NIFA Pest Management Alternatives Program to study molecular markers for resistance in spider mites. With this research ongoing and since the mechanisms of metabolic detoxification of pesticides is highly conserved among organisms, the WSU team will use this Emerging Issues grant to expand their research to include other serious pests in Washington, including thrips and Lygus bugs. Identifying molecular markers for insecticide resistance in susceptible pest populations and correlating these with the historical use of specific pesticides to control these populations will provide a foundational body of knowledge that will contribute to the development of molecular methods for quantifying the potential for pesticide resistance, which is an emerging problem for agricultural producers.

Role of Flavins in a Rhizobium-Legume Association

PI: Svetlana Yurgel, Institute of Biological Chemistry;
Collaborator: Sanja Roje, Institute of Biological Chemistry.


We have recently discovered that mutations in the riboflavin biosynthetic pathway significantly affect the ability of the alfalfa symbiont Sinorhizobium meliloti to secrete flavins – the bioactive molecules shown to have a beneficial effect on the plant growth and soil quality. We also found that flavins play a critical role in the ability of S. meliloti to compete for nodule occupancy and promote plant-host adaptation to environmental stresses—which are important in defining the efficiency of bacterial inoculation practices used as a part of rhizobia-legume cropping systems. The goal of this research is to uncover the mechanisms that control flavin secretion by Sinohizobium and to understand better the effect of bacteria-derived flavins on the adaptation ofrhizobia-legume associations to environmental stresses. This study is of considerable relevance to the current attempts to design inoculants with increased symbiotic performance and ability to improve soil quality.

Stress resistance and cross-protection in foodborne pathogens—Regulation and functions of sigma factors

PI: Meijun Zhu, Food Science;
co-PIs: Juming Tang, Biological Systems Engineering; Carolyn Bohach, Food Science, University of Idaho; Karen Killinger, Food Science.


Washington is a major producer of fruits, vegetable, beef and dairy products. Because fruits and vegetables are commonly eaten without heating, foodborne pathogens contaminating fresh produce poses a safety threat for consumers. To reduce pathogens, vegetables and fruits are rigorously washed. Similarly, steam and hot water washes are used for surface sanitization in the meat and dairy industries. Unfortunately, a fraction of pathogens are able to resist these decontamination procedures and survive, which prompts us to ask how these pathogens resist stress. We hypothesize that up-regulation of transcriptional sigma factors is a critical factor governing stress responses and cross-protection in foodborne pathogens. We will test this hypothesis by exploring the regulatory mechanisms linking the E. coli sigma factors RpoS and RpoH to heat resistance of E. coli O157:H7 and S. Typhimurium and to evaluate the regulation and mechanisms linking L. monocytogenes alternative sigma factors B and L to stress resistance. Knowledge obtained through examining the role of sigma factors in stress resistance and cross-protection may provide molecular targets to sensitize pathogens to various stresses, leading to strategies to reduce or eliminate foodborne pathogens in agriculture produces.