When American technical know-how goes overseas, people worry that it will come back as increased competition from abroad. A researcher at Oregon State University’s Agricultural Experiment Station has shown that with agricultural technology, the transfer of knowledge goes both ways.
Oregon farmers frequently gain valuable knowledge from technology imported from many other countries, according to Richard Smiley, plant pathologist at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center in Pendleton.
In Syria, for example, scientists recently discovered that drought resistance in some kinds of barley was really resistance to a particular nematode. This cereal cyst nematode damages roots just when wheat and barley seedlings are most vulnerable. Damage to crops can be extensive in parts of the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere around the world.
“French scientists have developed molecular technologies to quickly identify the presence of this nematode,” said Smiley. “In turn, Australian scientists developed rapid molecular techniques to identify plant genes carrying resistance to the nematode. They have freely transferred this technology, which is now being tested at an international winter wheat improvement program in Turkey.”
Identification of this pest can now be made in a matter of hours rather than the months it would take in traditional field trials.
“We are using these methods to determine how widespread cereal cyst nematodes are in Oregon’s dryland fields,” said Smiley.
In Syria, another international research center houses a genetic library of barley and wheat where plant scientists throughout the world can search for genetic material with specific traits.
Among this collection are genes resistant to Hessian fly, a pest that can cut yields of susceptible wheat varieties by 50 percent in Oregon and wipe out an entire crop in North Africa, according to Smiley. This quickly evolving pest requires wheat breeders to stay ahead by frequently rotating varieties of resistant germplasm into new wheat varieties.
“Adopting tactics used overseas could greatly reduce the potential threat to Oregon growers from Hessian fly and other pests,” said Smiley, who is currently helping to develop formal agreements linking research at the Pendleton research center with programs in Syria, Turkey, and Australia.
Oregon State University entered a new era of product licensing and intellectual property this year with the release of a new variety of herbicide-tolerant wheat.
The new soft white winter wheat variety, named ORCF-101, contains a gene for herbicide tolerance patented by the BASF Corporation, an international chemical company. The gene makes the wheat tolerant to the BASF herbicide “Beyond.” The herbicide and the herbicide-tolerant seed are marketed together as a production system called Clearfield.
OSU wheat breeder Jim Peterson developed the new variety using traditional plant breeding methods and not by genetic engineering. Because ORCF-101 is not genetically modified, it has no marketing restrictions, unlike some other herbicide-tolerant crops ORCF-101 was bred from Pacific Northwest varieties including Stephens, Madsen, and Malcolm and will “fit right in with current varieties, in terms of yield, performance, disease resistance, and end-use quality for the marketplace,” said Peterson. It is one of a handful of new Clearfield varieties being developed in the Pacific Northwest.
While the release of Clearfield varieties will be a boon to some growers, it is not a silver bullet, according to Russ Karow, cereals scientist with Oregon’s Agricultural Experiment Station.
“In many ways, breeding and selection have been the easy part,” said Peterson. He said the greater challenge has been providing growers with access to the new technology while satisfying stewardship requirements of the Clearfield production system and managing intellectual property rights of both OSU and BASF.
The plant disease detectives at Oregon State University will soon be sleuthing for homeland security. OSU Extension’s Plant Clinic has been designated as part of a new nationwide network to safeguard America’s food supply from bioterrorist attack.
“Right now, in the United States, our food supply is plentiful, inexpensive, and safe,” said Melodie Putnam, chief diagnostician at OSU’s Plant Clinic. “But there is lots to do to keep it that way.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has equipped a network of diagnostic labs for surveillance and rapid detection of plant pests and diseases that may be intentionally introduced into food crops. OSU’s Plant Clinic is one of three resource laboratories designated for the western region. Western agriculture provides the United States with much of its food, including commodity crops such as wheat and potatoes and hundreds of specialty crops from apples to hazelnuts. It is also a region with large population centers and big international ports where food is shipped around the world.
“If we had to create this level of expertise from scratch, we couldn’t afford the time or the cost,” said Putnam. “This new effort is based on knowledge and experience that have been building in this lab for the last 50 years.”
Since 1954, OSU’s Plant Clinic has offered diagnostic services to growers, gardeners, and researchers. Over the years, people have sent in thousands of samples in the form of shriveled vegetables, black-mottled twigs, or entire trees. The lab’s detectives have diagnosed problems, prescribed remedies, and recorded trends in pest and disease outbreaks.
Normally, when she receives a sample of a diseased plant, Putnam says she is looking for anything and everything. Traditional methods of plant disease detective work have given her a broad understanding of the pathogens that sometimes occur in Oregon’s fields and orchards.
Now with new tools in her lab, Putnam will also look for a few very specific pathogens, those that do not occur naturally and can cause devastating diseases in food crops. These may be foreign diseases for which our food crops have no immunity or particularly virulent diseases that can spread rapidly through the food supply.
For this detective work, Putnam will help develop molecular tests to rapidly identify some of the most potentially destructive plant pathogens. She will also work with growers to help them be alert to particular symptoms.
“The new aspects of our work are the surveillance of deliberately introduced epidemics and a reporting system that is integrated nationally for rapid response,” said Putnam.
A new atlas offers a crystal ball into the future of the Willamette Basin. Published earlier this year by the Oregon State University Press, Willamette River Basin Planning Atlas, Trajectories of Environmental and Ecological Change details ecological conditions and human activity in the Willamette River Basin through the past century and a half. In addition, the atlas examines how the region might change over the next 50 years, as the population swells with an additional 1.7 million people.
The book represents a major undertaking of scientists from OSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station, the University of Oregon, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, working together as the Pacific Northwest Research Consortium.
“For seven years, 30 to 40 of us worked on this project, creating something really huge,” said Stan Gregory, OSU professor of fisheries and wildlife and a principal investigator of the project. “Usually studies are limited to a small area, a municipality, or county. We compiled all our data for communities in the entire Willamette Basin to see how all management decisions add up to affect the landscape.”
The authors tested future alternatives to see how choices we make today might affect water, terrestrial habitats, and wildlife in the future. The results of their analysis offered some surprising hope for the future of the Willamette Basin’s environment.
“It blew me away to find that we might be able to improve or get back some of what we’ve lost, as far as wildlife, fish, and riparian habitat, even with two million more people, if we choose to take conservation seriously,” said Gregory.
“The models and scenarios told us, yes, all the small land-use and public policy decisions we make now and into the future could make a difference for the future,” said Gregory.
The 192-page atlas, full of color maps, archival photos, and other illustrations, is rich with geography, geology, biology, and patterns of human activity. It invites readers to learn about the past and plan for the future of the Willamette Basin, the most populated region of Oregon.
Willamette River Basin Planning Atlas—Trajectories of Environmental and Ecological Change, edited by David Hulse, Stan Gregory, and Joan Baker, is available in bookstores, libraries, or from the OSU Press.