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Growing Research from Seed Money

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The Agricultural Research Foundation sows new fields of discovery.

You're out with your friends on Friday night, and at some point someone begins scrawling on a paper napkin and talking a mile a minute. Over the din of the jukebox and the clink of beer mugs, the scrawls become a shape and the talk becomes a plan. You think, "What a great idea! If only somebody would fund it."

News flash: Somebody does. "That's what we do," says Dorothy Beaton, executive director of the Agricultural Research Foundation at OSU. "We give the unusual idea a chance. That's where we take our risks, and that's where we get our rewards."

The Agricultural Research Foundation is a corporate affiliate of Oregon State University. Since the mid-1980s, ARF's competitive grants program has funded many intriguing ideas, some of which have developed into full-blown research efforts. For example, OSU research on cancer-fighting chemicals in yew trees and hops got ARF funding back when those projects were not much more than scrawls on a cocktail napkin.

Dorothy Beaton photo by Steve Dodrill.

Dorothy Beaton, the executive director of the Agricultural Research Foundation, helps sow the seeds of new ideas into fields of discovery. Photo: Steve Dodrill

"They fund ideas," says Pat Dysart, of OSU's Crop and Soil Science department, who is using ARF funds to look into the weed-killing effects of western juniper. "Very few sources fund conceptual ideas." A good idea at the paper napkin stage has little chance of success in the hotly competitive research-grant market. The foundation's mission is to give researchers the chance to explore and develop their concepts, and get projects ready to compete in the national arena.

Several research projects featured over the years in this magazine got their initial boost from ARF funds. That includes the green roof project on our current cover and the ground-breaking work with native pollinators described in our article, "The Other Bees," in this issue. In fact, much of the cost of bringing you these stories in living color is funded by an ARF special grant.

Every year ARF's General Fund awards monies for new research projects aimed at advancing and improving agricultural technologies. For fiscal year 2007-2008, the foundation granted $372,235, initiating 33 new projects. Some of the upcoming wild ideas include testing flexible biofilms to protect apples from sunburn and developing heart-healthy chicken eggs.

So if you're a researcher with an unusual idea, hang onto those beer-stained napkins.


A "GREEN" WEED KILLER

OSU researcher Pat Dysart applies the juniper-based herbicide to a variety of weed seeds in the lab. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Like a lot of intriguing ideas funded by the Agricultural Research Foundation, this one began with a quirky observation. For years, people had noticed that juniper trees seem to inhibit the growth of other vegetation around them.

Populations of western juniper have surged in recent years across the dry inland West. Although it is a native species, its proliferation is drying up streams and outcompeting native grasses. Working with weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith, Pat Dysart wondered whether something in the plant's chemistry might be killing or retarding the growth of neighboring plants. If so, they thought, might it be possible to use its toxic power as a weed-killer?

Grants from ARF allowed Dysart and Mallory-Smith to test their idea in greenhouse experiments, where they found that juniper leaves do inhibit germination of troublesome rangeland weeds, including medusahead and cheatgrass. The researchers are now taking their experiments to the field to test various ways to apply the juniper—as dried leaves, juniper tea, or leaf-and-stem mulch—and evaluate how well each works to keep weeds from sprouting. Dysart and Mallory-Smith are working with Jason Smith, a range specialist on the Warm Springs Reservation, where their field plots are located. The OSU research dovetails with the Tribes' efforts to remove invasive juniper from their rangelands. "We really appreciate the collaboration of the Tribes," says Dysart. "They've furnished all our juniper, cut it and brought it over to us, and they've helped us with installing and monitoring our experiment."

It's too soon to tell whether juniper will be developed into a commercial herbicide, says Mallory-Smith. But their work could help land managers and farmers harness the weed-killing power of this aggressive tree. In the meantime, the researchers have gained an additional $70,000 in funding from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "If it weren't for our initial support from ARF, the project would certainly not have been as successful," Dysart says.

OSU Weed Science Group


IT PAYS TO KNOW YOUR NOODLES

Andrew Ross photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Andrew Ross, an OSU cereal chemist, knows down to the molecule what it takes to make the best possible noodle. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

The people of Asia love their noodles, and they eat a lot of them—fresh, boiled, dried, steamed, or instant. Some of Oregon’s wheat crop is sold for noodle making in the Asian market. Oregon will sell even more, believes Andrew Ross, once hard white wheats—perfect for noodles—are developed and widely planted here.

Ross, a cereal chemist with OSU’s Crop and Soil Science department, is an expert on flours used to make Asian noodles. He is working with OSU plant breeder Jim Peterson to develop hard white wheat that will thrive in West Coast climates. (Most of Oregon’s wheat is of the soft white class, used chiefly for cookies, cakes, and pastry flour.) Ross is using his ARF funding to develop tests of noodle doughs made from different varieties of wheat. His goal is to devise precise metrics for all the qualities noodle makers care about: springiness, elasticity, slipperiness, compressibility, consistency or “feel,” and a host of others. These qualities change from dough to dough because of differences in levels of gluten protein and starch in different varieties of wheat seeds.

Ross whips up his recipes in special recording mixers that measure how springy the dough is and how well it forms into a ball. He squashes balls of dough between two plexiglass cylinders to measure how readily it compresses into sheets and how long it takes to relax after kneading. He squeezes boiled noodles with machines that measure their firmness, springiness, and resilience, important qualities for the discerning noodle consumer.

In the days when most noodles were made by hand, dough makers relied on their experienced touch. “They knew when to add a bit more water, a bit more flour, or give them one more pass with the rolling pin,” says Ross. Now, consistency (in both senses of the word) is critical because the dough has to work reliably with industrial-scale noodle machines and deliver identical noodle quality time after time.

Ross’s noodle measurements connect to Peterson’s wheat-breeding process, selecting wheat cultivars that have the best noodle-making qualities. Ross is assembling all his metrics into an index of product quality, so that, as hard white wheat gains acreage here, growers can assure Asia that Oregon wheat makes great noodles.


YOU CAN TAKE THE BERRY OUT OF THE FARM BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE THE FARM OUT OF THE BERRY

Kim Anderson photo by Lynn Ketchum.

OSU environmental chemist Kim Anderson can pinpoint the origin of particular foods, verifying that the berry is from Oregon, not Mexico, or the salmon is wild, not farmed. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Discriminating coffee drinkers are willing to pay top dollar for coffee grown in Kona, Hawaii. But don't trust the label. About ten times more coffee is sold as "Kona coffee" than is actually grown on the island, says Kim Anderson. So the likelihood that you're drinking real Kona coffee is about one in ten.

Anderson, a chemist in OSU's Environmental and Molecular Toxicology department, has developed a way to read a plant's chemical "fingerprint" to pinpoint where the plant was grown. Her work could stem the widespread mislabeling of high-value food like coffee, blueberries, strawberries, and even salmon. It could also potentially help authorities track the flow of illegal plant-based drugs.

Anderson started out profiling potatoes at the University of Idaho. Because Idaho potatoes enjoy a market premium, some packing houses were putting Idaho labels on potatoes that were grown in other places. She developed a method to chemically distinguish an Idaho potato from one grown in Maine or Peru. Her work helped the Idaho Potato Commission win a lawsuit against the fraudulent packers.

How does profiling work? Anderson analyzes a plant's tissues to detect the ratio of certain micronutrients to one another—copper, sodium, potassium, iron, zinc, and others—and also the ratio of certain isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. Because these elements are present in different quantities in soils in different places, they will appear in distinctive ratios in tissues of plants grown in those soils. Thus, strawberries grown in the Willamette Valley have a different chemical fingerprint from those grown in Chile. It's possible to make even finer distinctions, between fruit grown in adjacent counties or even adjacent fields.

Anderson is using her latest grant from the Agricultural Research Foundation to develop an isotope-based fingerprint for salmon, to determine whether it's wild or farmed. Because farmed salmon is much cheaper than wild, "you can imagine that someone might be willing to mislabel it."

Straws In The Water

Mike Hayes photo by Pat Hayes.

Student Mike Hayes prepares barley straw for his father’s research in suppressing algae in a pond at the Oregon Garden in Silverton. Photo: Pat Hayes

It's said that medieval peasants threw sheaves of corn into the village wells to keep the water clean. More recently, farmers have asserted that submerging a bale or two of barley straw—the fibrous stalk left over after the grain heads are removed—into the farm pond seems to keep algae at bay.

"We were getting calls from people who wanted to know how much straw to put in their ponds," says Pat Hayes, a cereal geneticist with OSU's Crop and Soil Science department. "Rather naïvely, in hindsight, we thought we could do a few quick tests and answer those questions."

The quick tests turned into a complicated multiyear series of lab and field experiments. "To say 'control algae' is the about same as saying 'control weeds,'" says Hayes. "There are probably as many different strains of algae as there are species of weeds."

So the testing had to get specific. Hayes and Russ Meints, a retired OSU expert in marine algae–virus interactions, used Hayes's initial $15,000 grant from the Agricultural Research Foundation to test effects of barley straw, or its extracts, on different algae strains under various laboratory conditions. The tests were encouraging, so Hayes teamed up with Sam Doane, a Canby nursery manager, and Stan Geiger, a Portland-based expert on wetlands mitigation, to conduct field tests at the Oregon Garden near Silverton, where algae clogged the landscape's water features. The straw seemed to slow the algae down, although the extra-high nutrient levels in the water—which came from the Silverton water treatment system—encouraged the algae to grow faster. More complexity.

Subsequent tests in Upper Klamath Lake showed that barley straw slowed the growth of a strain of blue-green algae that threaten fish habitat and water quality in lakes.

The upshot of the testing? "We don't understand the mechanism yet," Hayes said. The straw may be altering the nutrient balance in the water, effectively starving the algae to death; or the straw's decomposition may be producing compounds toxic to algae; or both. In the next phase of the project, funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hayes and Geiger have teamed with Allen Milligan, an OSU molecular oceanographer, and graduate student Kale Haggard to test whether barley straw mimics the algae-suppressing properties in natural wetlands.

"That first $15,000 from the ARF opened up whole new arenas of research," Hayes says.

Barley Straw Web Site

TAKE A LITTLE WINE FOR THY STOMACH'S SAKE

Mark Daeschel photo by Lynn Ketchum.

OSU microbiologist Mark Daeschel spritzes a Chardonnay-based disinfectant, a new product that got its start as a wild idea. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

If everyone on the ship had heeded these words from Saint Paul, maybe the salad bar wouldn’t have made them so sick.

In an outbreak of foodborne illness on a Caribbean cruise ship in the late 1990s, people who drank wine with their meal did not get as sick as the teetotalers, says Mark Daeschel. “There’s been anecdotal evidence over the years that wine seems to provide some protection against foodborne illness.”

Wine on an empty stomach provides the best antibacterial protection, Daeschel says, but a moderate amount of wine with a meal may inhibit food-borne pathogens at levels most diners are likely to encounter.

What if wine could be used to kill germs before they made someone sick? Daeschel, a food microbiologist with OSU’s Department of Food Science and Technology, is using his funding from the Agricultural Research Foundation to perfect a wine-based disinfectant for sanitizing kitchen countertops, utensils, and even fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. Commercially developed, such a product could provide an organic, palatable alternative to disinfectants containing bleach or ammonia. It could create a commercial market for surplus wine. And for people who don’t want to consume alcohol, the disinfectant can be rinsed off without losing its effectiveness.

In lab studies, Daeschel looked at four properties of wine: alcohol content, sulfur dioxide content, and two measures of acidity. He formulated Pinot noir and Chardonnay wines to make samples with low, medium, and high levels of each property, a total of 81 combinations, and tested them against one another for each of two pathogens, E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. He found that wines with the most alcohol and acid were the most effective. Daeschel, with help from OSU’s Trademark Licensing office, has submitted a patent application for his wine-based disinfectant process.

Agricultural Research Foundation

Published in: Economics, People