Episode 22: Breeding the Most Elite Winter Wheat

Episode 22: Breeding the most elite winter wheat

The only thing certain in crop science is change. The varietal of wheat that stood strong against disease, rallied from extreme temperatures, and survived the water conditions of five years ago is not the variety that will be the most successful five years in the future. In this episode Dr. Arron Carter, professor and OA. Vogel Endowed Chair of wheat breeding and genetics at Washington State University, discusses the 10-year process that thousands of varietals of wheat go through to determine the best wheat products each year in the ever-changing climate conditions.


Dr. Arron Carter, professor and O.A. Vogel Endowed Chair of Wheat Breeding and Genetics at Washington State University, graduated with both a bachelor’s and master’s in plant science from the University of Idaho and received his doctorate at Washington State University in crop science, where he currently leads the winter wheat breeding and genetics program. His research is directed towards breeding improved wheat varieties for cropping systems in Washington state that incorporate diverse rotations and environments. His goal in this program is to release high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties with good end-use quality that will maintain profitability and reduce the risk to growers.

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We’re managing several varieties at a time. You know, the first time when we go out in the field for a yield test, there might be 2,000, you know, lines that we’re looking at. And then again, thinking of this, like all star team, right, we’re going along and slowly getting rid of those that don’t have the characteristics we want. And then focusing on looking at those that do have the characteristics to find the elite variety. We start off with thousands, end up hopefully after four or five years with one.

That’s a small taste of what we have in store for you today, We Measure the World explores interesting environmental research trends, how scientists are solving research issues, and what tools are helping them better understand measurements across the entire soil plant atmosphere continuum. Today’s guest is Dr. Arron Carter, professor and OA Vogel Endowed Chair of wheat breeding and genetics at Washington State University. Arron graduated with both a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Plant Science from the University of Idaho, and received his doctorate at Washington State University in crop science, where he currently leads the winter wheat breeding and genetics program. His research is directed towards breeding improved wheat varieties for cropping systems in Washington state than incorporate diverse rotations and environments. His goal in this program is to release high yielding disease resistant varieties with good and use quality that will maintain profitability and reduce the risk to growers. And today, he’s here to talk to us about his work breeding the perfect variety of winter wheat. So, Arron, thanks so much for being here!

Yeah, thank you so, so much for having me.

How did you get interested in crop science in general? And how did you work your way into plant breeding and winter wheat specifically?

So yeah, it’s kind of a funny story, how I got involved in plant breeding. It goes all the way back to you know, high school, when I was always interested in science and math, figuring out how things worked. And I learned that my high school ag teacher, let his favorite senior take his 69 Stingray Corvette to senior prom. And so when I went to high school, I was like, Well, I guess I better take a plant class, so I can get on the good side of this teacher. So I went in, and it was an intro to plant science class as freshman in high school. And we had to work on this little project. And the teacher wanted to figure out how to take a transplant of ivy from the school so he could take it home and grow it on his barn, I thought, well, the best way to get on his good side is figure this out. So I spent a couple months tinkering around how to get this transplant to grow and take a cutting from it. I got interested in combining the science side of biology with the plants and really figuring out how plants work and what makes them grow. So that just kind of sparked that interest in plant science. As a general topic, I worked all out through high school. And so my senior year, there was a Research and Extension Center near my town. So I went and did some job shadowing, and did some plant breeding and made some crosses with a pea and bean breeder. And it was just like, wow, this, this looks interesting. So after taking the Corvette to prom — I did get on his good side and take that — I went to the University of Idaho and happened to get partnered up with the wheat breeder at the University of Idaho and started working in his program. And again, just kind of flushing out what exactly is plant breeding and how does it work, and I fell in love with it.

Awesome. For those of us in the audience who might not have as much of a background in crop science, can you just give us a little introduction to plant breeding? And to specifically wheat breeding? What is it? What are your goals? What are you looking to accomplish?

Yeah, so plant breeding in general is really just about finding the best combination of genes within one given individual. It’s really just about looking at a lot of variation. So just like when you look at humans, right, there’s multiple people out there and every person looks a little different. Every person came from a different heritage and different parents. And you know, most parents have genes that they can pass to their offspring plants are exactly the same, right? So we’ll take two plants that have favorable and complementing characteristics, we cross them together, just like they would happen in nature, we make a cross and then we look at hundreds or thousands of progeny from that one individual cross. And when then again, making multiple crosses or looking at tens of thousands of individuals, and then going through and really looking for the best individual. It’s kind of like looking at, you know, high school football teams, and then you find the best out of those high school football teams and then go on to college and then go on to the NFL, and eventually the all star team and eventually the MVP, you move that process along until you find that one elite cultivar that has all the characteristics you’re looking for, for commercial production, every crop that you work with is going to be a little different as far as cycle time. So yeah, you have, you have some crops that could go multiple generations in greenhouses very rapidly, you have some crops, where they’ll grow the summer in the US. And then in US winter, they send it to Argentina, and then they grow another season in Argentina. And so they kind of do this shuttle back and forth, so they can get to field seasons in a given year, we’re looking in wheat, anywhere from eight to 10 years of development and testing, before we identify something that we have confidence in is going to be a good variety. But you know, if you look at a tree for breeding, that could be up to 20 or 30 years, other crops are a little bit faster. So it kind of all varies, but for wheat in particular, it’s about 8 to 10 years. So yeah, it is time and a process associated.

All right, and can you explain a little bit about what winter wheat is compared to other varieties and how you got involved in winter wheat specifically?

So the main two types are either a winter wheat or spring wheat. And the main difference is winter wheat requires a period, which is about six to eight weeks of cold temperatures, so about four degrees Celsius or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, to make a transition from vegetative, or it’s only growing leaves to reproductive when it actually puts a flower up and makes the seed. So it’s there’s a couple genes called the vernalization genes that the dictate whether it’s spring or winter. And so that’s kind of the main difference. So if you grew, you know, if you planted winter wheat in March or April, right, it doesn’t get that cold period. So it’s just going to sit vegetative, grow a lot of leaves, whereas spring wheat would immediately start growing, start flowering and produce seed. So most of your winter wheat is going to be planted in the fall, August, September, October. And then over winter, it kind of goes dormant and receives that vernalization requirement that cold period, and then starts growing in the spring turning reproductive, the difference between spring and winter wheat is really about production. So you know, spring we is geared to go fast, because you know, you’re planting it as soon as you can after winter time. So wherever you’re at here in Washington, you know, that’s typically late March to April, and then you’re harvesting four months later, right? So it’s a rapid, fast growth. Whereas winter wheat in Washington, you’re planting anywhere from August to October. And then you’re harvesting in July. So you’re looking at like a 10 month growth period. So because of that, you know, winter wheat usually has a yield advantage, more more stems, more flowers, more kernels associated with it, just because it has that longer time to grow than the speed of a spring wheat

Right, now, is this a much more recent development, where we have the winter varieties that then can over winter in the vegetative state before vernalization?

Some of the ancestors going back again, 10 12,000 years, they were also what we would call a winter annual. So yeah, there was probably along the way, some mutations that occurred that caused the spring wheat, there are even spring and winter types of those ancestral varieties as well. You know, if you look historically at wheat, it’s pretty complex hybridization events to kind of make because we have three ancestral varieties, or what we would call genomes kind of three distinct plants that kind of make what wheat is today.

Okay. All right. And with that, what are the specific characteristics that you’re looking for in a good variety of winter wheat?

There’s a lot of things that we look at first, it has to be agronomics, because it’s winter wheat has to survive the winter, right? So it can be susceptible than any kind of cold. Right now we’re sitting under a couple feet of snow, and it’s super cold outside today. They have to be able to survive just sitting under three months of snow for months of snow and these cold temperatures. So that’s the first thing you have to get through in some of our cropping systems, especially here in Washington, we will plant six to eight inches deep because it’s so dry. They’ve got to be able to emerge, they’ve got to be able to establish well in the fall, and then move into that winter period. And then in the springtime. It’s about how fast is it break that winter dormancy and start growing again to take advantage of the good weather. How fast is the canopy close? How competitive is it with weeds and other things in the field? yield. And then ultimately, you know, looking at final grain yield, that’s kind of the tell tale of everything it has to yield well has to yield high, so that farmers can make a profit on that. And then of course, along the way, there’s just a lot of things that are trying to take away from that final yield. So you have insect pests, you have fungal pest, viral pest, we’re really trying to develop varieties that are also resistant to all those pests and diseases out in the field. So that we can maintain that yield potential that is inherent within the variety, instead of being taken away from because of whatever pest. That’s kind of the main thing, we look at making sure it’s the proper plant height, so it doesn’t get too tall and fall over, making sure a flower is at the right time. So late frost don’t come in and kill the plant, whatever it might be. Really looking at agronomics associated with it, and then kind of the final step is our indies quality, because eventually you’re going to make a product with the wheat variety. A lot of our varieties in the Pacific Northwest go to export markets, specifically the Pacific Rim. So think about like Japan, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, they’re kind of our major buyers. So we work very closely with them, to understand what their markets are, what products they’re aching, to make sure we develop a variety that meets their standards for their quality as well

Are there prime climate zones or latitudes that then winter wheat can flourish more readily than others?

There definitely are, you know, just like any crop, it’s kind of suited to different weather patterns. In Washington, we have fairly favorable conditions. So our summers are pretty mild, considering you know, our high temperatures are 85-90 degrees, right? If we get above 90, we start complaining that it’s too hot. It’s more sometimes about nighttime temperatures than daytime temperatures. So you can have a high daytime temperature. But if your nighttime temperatures cool, the plant can kind of recover from that stress of the day and handle it a little bit. Whereas if you’re talking about 100 degrees in daytime, but 85 at night, they just get no relief from that heat. In Washington, we have some fairly favorable conditions for just growing wheat. And when you look, you know, Whitman County, where we’re at here and Pullman is one of the highest yielding counties in the United States, just again, because favorable weather conditions and our soils have a very high water holding capacity. You know, everything kind of lines up well.

Is this a variety than that is grown via dry farming primarily?

Yeah. So primarily in Washington, everything is dry farming. So whatever, you know, snowfall, we get a rainfall during the season is what the plant has available to it, you know, a little bit of irrigation in the central part of Washington. But yeah, mainly everything’s dry farming.

When it comes to growing, you’ve got your cash crops, but you also have cover crops. I think I read somewhere that winter wheat can be used as a cover crop as well, in some places, is that correct?

Again, in Washington, we usually don’t do that. But in other places like Oklahoma, for example, they actually use it for grazing, they plant the winter wheat, and they graze it for their cattle most of the year. And then if conditions are favorable, and the weather is favorable, they’ll take it to a grain crop and make a little profit on the grain. But the primary reason for planting winter wheat in like Oklahoma is grazing first. So yeah, it does have some other uses around the US as well.

Interesting so coming back to the characteristics that you’re looking for, how are you measuring that? And what are you looking for specifically?

Right, yeah, so as I mentioned, you’re looking at good emergence and stand establishment after planting, good winter survival. And those are just kind of rated on a zero to 10 scale, you know, good to bad, you know, it’s kind of just the sliding scale. And then, you know, we get into the specifics of flowering date and final plant height, test way that’s kind of about the density of the seed, you know, is packed full of starches, or is it not, that kind of feeds into the end use quality, we do full milling and baking analysis on all these varieties. You know, we mill samples into flour, we make products out of those, so we’re actually seeing how they work functionally for indies quality, a lot of disease resistance. So there’s about a dozen different diseases that we kind of focus on mainly. So again, rating those on a scale of how much disease is present, what’s the severity of that disease, we’re also looking at the abiotic. So the nonliving things like soil pH and drought tolerance and heat tolerance and you know a lot of different aspects. We have certain locations where we know we get certain diseases or the pH is low so we can screen variety. Some locations are purely about just screening for a disease or a stress. Other locations are more about looking at final yield potential. You know one thing we also look at is not only how a variety performs in a given year, but how is it going to perform across multiple environments in multiple years. Because again, you know, you don’t want to give a farmer a variety that does great in a wet year. But then if a dry year comes along, it’s a complete failure, you know, we want to be able to have something that is good in every situation. And that’s kind of the golden ticket there is finding those varieties that will perform well across the multiple environments.

As you’re doing that, are you focusing primarily on one variety, and that’s where your all your efforts are going towards? Are you managing several different varieties at the same time?

We’re managing several varieties at a time, you know, the first time when we go out in the field, for a yield test, there might be 2000, you know, lines that we’re looking at. And then again, thinking of this, like all star team, right, we’re going along and slowly getting rid of those that don’t have the characteristics we want. And then focusing on looking at those that do have the characteristics to find the elite variety. We start off with 1000s and up hopefully, after four or five years with one, basil’s characteristics, and then of course, you know, every year we’re moving that through, so I have elite trials, the same year, I have preliminary first year trials, you know, so we kind of keep that pipeline, if you will, full of varieties moving through, it’s a lot about testing the varieties over multiple locations and multiple years to see how they perform. Gathering enough data that you have confidence that you can say, okay, definitely a bad line, it needs to go in the trash can, or Wow, this lens looking really good. We’re going to keep that untested another year.

What is that final cut, where it says, this is a Hall of Fame variety, it’s good to send off to the growers or to market?

Oh, if I see a variety out there that growers are growing, but maybe it’s susceptible to a disease, I’m gonna give them a variety of that, at least performs equal to if not better than and has that disease resistance associated with it. And you know, there’s there’s given takes all the time, you know, you might have something that’s acceptable in one area, and phenomenal. And another, you know, and you kind of have to weigh those back and forth, which just comes a lot with time and experience, talking with the growers understanding, okay, this trade is essential, the straights desired, but not essential. You know, and when you’re looking at 60 traits in a given year, you’re gonna have everything from it’s good, it’s good, acceptable, acceptable, good. So again, you’re trying to find those varieties that have increased number of favorable traits associated with them, right.

I’m interested in hearing about your process about how that plays out, but also the traditional process of phenotyping from decades ago, and how that’s evolved and changed and improved over time.

So we’ve had a wheat breeding program at Washington State University for over 125 years. And when I look back at what the objectives were, for those first wheat breeders, they’re the same as what I’m doing good yield, good production, good performance, good quality differences. We have different tools, you know, as I talked about previously, you can measure plant height, you can measure flowering date, they’re all things we can see with our eye. I can put a stick down and tell you 36 inches tall. I can tell you it flowered on June 12, whatever it is, because my eye can see that. Now we’re starting to phenotype everything our eye can’t see. And that’s where we start getting into different sensors, and thermal cameras, wavelengths and spectral indices that help us understand how much nitrogen the plant is using, how much water the plant is using, how much transpiration is occurring. So all of these now are starting to be phenotypes and traits that my predecessors never had available to them. But we now have available to help us better understand how the environment is affecting the plants. And hopefully that’s helping us make better selections. And it’s a thing that my program has been looking at a lot. You know, we’ve been flying drones and using sensors on our variety since 2016. So we’ve got about six years of data now, where we’ve been able to watch varieties and see how they’re performing for these traits that you can’t see with your eye.

With a drone, specifically, what kind of sensors do you have on those?

Initially, we did the research to kind of understand what we needed to look at. So as what we’re looking at specifically, are just again, specific wavelengths. And looking at that reflectance. There’s multiple companies that will develop these cameras for you and put different filters in so that you can look at these different wavelengths. We’re just looking at those to build the indices that we’re interested in. So we use five different wavelengths to help us build a water index and a nitrogen index and of photosynthetic index to help us again understand how that plant is kind of working under these different stresses, and use those as additional trait values.

And you talked about drones, have you been gone up a little bit higher and use satellites and satellite imaging as well?

I’ve got some great collaborators at the university. And we’ve looked at everything from you know, handheld instruments to tractor mounted to drones, to satellites, lower reading satellites, a little bit of everything, you know, all of them have their pros and cons, we, right now still find the drone is kind of the easiest for us to use, because we can still control it. When you’re working with satellites, you know, maybe it’s a cloudy day, maybe this or that is going on, and you might not get it. We’re still playing around with all that satellite data we are getting to see you know, exactly how is it going to help us. Sometimes for us, when we’re working with just little plots and little blips on the ground, satellites don’t quite have the resolution we need for those cases. So the drones kind of are a good fit in between where you can fly and kind of capture that whole field in one picture, and still have pretty good resolution.

Does all of this play into your process of rapid phenotyping?

Yeah, definitely goes into rapid phenotyping. But what I’ve been learning, everyone’s a little different, right. So different crops behave a little differently, different parts of the country behave a little differently. So this is kind of what I’ve learned about wheat in Washington, is it’s not really about how it’s doing in the given year. Because you know, the sensor data, we get very high correlations with performance in that year at that location. But it’s not necessarily telling us how well that variety will perform the next year, when we might have extreme moisture or extreme drought, you know, and so is what we’re looking at now is collecting enough data that we can start building prediction models, and actually taking all this past performance and saying, Okay, we know how these 1000s of varieties performed in the dry years and the wet years and the hot years in the cold years, and then doing our forward prediction and saying, Okay, here’s a variety that’s never seen the field, but how would it perform in any of these predicted environments. And so again, it would kind of be like going to the high school football team, and saying, we’re just going to predict who would do well, in the NFL, we’ll skip the college years, and just send them straight to the NFL, because they’re predicted to do phenomenal there. We do that a lot with genetics, and genotyping and understanding on a genetic level, which of these varieties have those genes that would make them favorable in the field, I mean, it’s not perfect, but it allows us to remove varieties that we’re pretty confident are never going to make it, they don’t have the characteristics we need. And then it helps us really focus in on these elite varieties and testing them. And again, kind of, you know, if we grow them that first year in a wet year, since I don’t know how it’ll perform in a dry year, I can now predict that, so then I can have Okay, here’s how it actually did in a wet year and here’s how it’s predicted to do in a dry year, a little more information that now I can make better selection decisions to advance those forward.

Right. Would you be able to go into a bit more detail about how that genotyping process works and bit more about how it plays into the phenotyping in the breeding aspects?

For wheat being kind of one of the major staple crops, it’s actually one of the last that we actually have, like a full genome assembly, because it’s complex, because it has these three ancestral varieties that, you know, kind of formed together, and it’s a very big genome. So there’s a lot of DNA there that you kind of have to figure out, but we have the genome assembly over the last couple of years. You know, it gives us a really good picture before we are just kind of dealing with one gene, and one DNA marker that kind of tracks that gene. So you know, we know it has the disease resistance or doesn’t have the disease resistance. But yeah, now we’re kind of at that stage where we can do full genome sequencing, and kind of look at every piece of DNA that’s there, we still don’t understand all the genes, and what the different DNA regions are doing. But with these models, we know okay, if you have this specific DNA sequence, you’re predicted to do better. We don’t know what that is, is that a drought tolerance is that a disease tolerance is that like, we don’t know what that means. But we just know if you have this, you’re predicted to do better than than not. I mean, the genotyping technology is advancing very rapidly. So I joke around so I’ve been out of my PhD for about 13-14 years now. And you know, when I started I was excited because we went From a one, channel pipette. So just being able to pull up one sample at a time to a 12 channel, right now I can pull 12 at a time, right. And now we have robots where you stick a 384 well plate in, and it’s moving 384 samples at a time. And so I know my PhD project took me six months to get genotype information. Now I can send it away and to a lab and a couple of weeks later, you know, so that technology is just moving so rapidly, what I’m talking about, we can do now is probably going to change in the next five years as well. But the point of it all is, you know, we’re to that point where really we know enough about the genetics and of wheat that we can start making these big prediction models.

Has your work gotten involved at all with genetic modification of the wheat varieties?

Yeah, we just work with modeling and phenotyping, you know, we make our crosses just like they would out in nature. So we don’t work with anything. And this is we breeding programs across the US, we don’t work with genetic modification or anything like that yet. It’s a tool, and it’s a technology that’s available. But we don’t work with it a lot, because a lot of our export markets still don’t accept genetic modification. So if there are programs that happen to be using it, they’re not associated with the plant breeding programs, you know, they’re kind of the programs in the lab playing around with it, seeing if it will work. But we keep that away from all the plant breeding, so we don’t contaminate anything and brew in any of our domestic or export markets.

Could you explain a bit about environment typing, and its importance to the work that you’re doing as well?

Yeah. So this is just kind of come out in the past couple of years, where we’re really now starting to think about the environments that were growing varieties in the really unique characteristics about all of those, you know, as a plant breeder, you’re always looking at your environments. And so you know, it was cold, it was hot, you know, on kind of these general trends. But now we’re really starting to dial it in and really understand exactly what’s going on all these environments. I talked about these fluctuations in every year. So even they’re all I’m growing a test plot in the same location every year. That’s really a different location every year, because it’s a different environment. So as we start understanding more about the environment, and doing this in viral typing, it’s going to help us really understand what’s going on at that location, what were the stresses, when those stresses came? How much water was available? What were the growing degree days, right, all of this that we kind of looked at 10, generally, previously, and dial it in a lot more. You know, I know a lot of the private companies, especially in like maize breeding and soybean breeding, they’ve been doing this for a while already. But kind of coming down to the university level, we’re just kind of starting to dive into it heavily,

right? We have a lot of soil scientists here at METER and a lot of our customers are dealing with soil science and soil research, how does the soil play a role in Enviro typing? And how do you measure that change from year to year, or the various characteristics of the soil and soil health?

Soil is very important, because that’s, you know, all your nutrients come from that, all our water comes from that. We don’t get a lot of water in season, so it’s all stored in the soil. So you know, really the soil is our medium for what the plants going to do that year. How do you understand that, you know? We’re still discussing that. You know, you can put in sensors, and you can kind of look at how much water is available there and what the water potential is of the soil and, and that but you know, the difficulty we have in a plant breeding program is I’m looking at thousands of varieties across the entire field. And so you have to capture all the variation of that field. And it’s just not possible to put a soil sensor in every single plot that’s out there, although it would be phenomenal, you know, it’s just not going to happen. So, you know, it’s really kind of looking at, you know, trends and understanding what we think’s going on in the soil with the ultimate goal is to again, be able to better make prediction models based on what we know is going on in that certain environment, for example, right, if I have an environment where the stress came early, and I know it was an early season stress, versus of late season stress, that’s going to inform how I make decisions about what varieties to keep, and gives me information. Okay, I know if this variety did well, it was because it could survive an early season stress and know the very specifics of that, versus in another location. You know, maybe the stress came later or maybe the stress came in the fall and not in the springtime, you know, so there’s all these different scenarios where yield could be taken away, right? So I think as we understand that better about each of these environments that we’re growing in, like I say, it may be the same farmer’s field. But every year, it’s going to be a little different. Because right now we just generalize it, right? It’s high rainfall, it’s low rainfall, it’s a northern latitude. It’s a southern latitude, you know, you make these generalities. But in reality, right, even though it’s a southern latitude, it may have a cold stress, when you typically would say, oh, there’s no cold stress down there, understanding all of this. And really building these prediction models, I think, is kind of where we’re going and better understanding these environments. We’re still like I say, conversing with a lot of different experts in, in these fields outside of plant breeding, to really figure out how we’re going to use this information in these models, right.

So if you were able to build like a perfect test plot and have the environmental variables that you would be able to understand, what would go into that?

I want to know how a variety will perform in any condition you give it, right, because that way, when I give it to the grower, I’ve got this confidence again, that like, Hey, if you have a wet year, dry year, it’s still going to be the best. Now if you have a dry year yield is not going to be as high as a wet year. But I don’t want it going from the number one variety to the number 100 variety in the test. I want to always to be number one, regardless of what you throw at it. For me, it’s more about being able to understand how it would do in multiple environments. So like my perfect environment is multiple environments that are all kind of giving you something a little different. Because if all my locations this coming year are beautiful, and no stress, and you know, phenomenal and high yield. I’m like, great. But what’s going to happen when it’s a stressful environment, which one of these is still going to be number one, I kind of look at it as, again, I want to understand what each of the environments I’m testing in are telling me. Right? Not just Well, this was high yield, this was low yield, this was high yield because of XYZ, it could be because there was, you know, a lot of moisture there great temperatures, it could be bad yield because of a disease being present, or drought. If I know that and informs my decision, if all I know is it was low yielding. But I don’t know why it’s very difficult to make any decisions on what varieties to keep. Sometimes I can see that because there’s a disease there. And I can say, okay, obviously there’s a disease, let’s see which lines still yield high, because it means they were able to tolerate or resist that disease. You know, when I get that data, and I look at it, I’m like, wow, what went on there, because it looked like a good environment. But here, we get these low yields. It’s really not super useful, unless I kind of know the why. So my perfect environment really is, I know the why I know what happened there be a good be a bad, be it ugly, then it really informs my decision.

So say you got blank check from USDA, if you want it to know the why of that environment, what would that look like to really get at the why?

Yeah, so definitely be all the genotyping we can on the varieties, it would be all the phenotypes we can get. So that being from the visual that I can see to as much as we can get with sensors, and everything we can’t see. And then that third, like you asked about was the environment typing, like, give me all the environmental information we can on that, whether that be weather data, you know, wind, precipitation, solar radiation, right, everything that’s going on there. And then being able to put all of that into this prediction model, you know, which takes a few years to get enough information and enough varieties to like, be confident in your predictions. But once you get 1000s of individuals in there and multiple years and environments, within those years, those predictions are very powerful. So it doesn’t take away what you’re seeing again, in the field. But it just adds all this extra information to it to help you. So you know, that’s what I would really do with the blank check. Take all this information we’ve got and build together these models, which again, is kind of the hard part, right? We’re sitting here talking about plant breeding. And you know, I’m the expert in plant breeding, and yet I’m telling you, we need to figure out how to run all these statistical models and figure out all this environmental data and do all this computer programming, you know, so it really is about pulling together experts from all these different fields to help you understand because like I say, I’m I’m not the expert in those but there are people out there who are so you know, plant breeding if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s really about collaborations and getting all these experts from these different fields to help you understand what’s going on.

Can you talk a little bit about collaboration with the growers side of things, and maybe the growing consultants, crop consultants and things?

Yeah. So I mean, we have a great relationship with our growers in the state. They’re ultimately our stakeholders, right. And they have a checkoff system where they give money back that goes into research and education. So a portion of that comes and helps fund my program. So you know, we really interact with them closely, because, again, you know, I’m using their money, and I want to give them a product back that’s going to be beneficial to them. So we’re talking a lot about what kind of are the future trends and what do we see coming up in the future? And what are we dealing with right now, and what might we deal with in five years, so we can start building varieties that are going to meet that, you know, you can’t respond instantly to a new disease in a year, right, it’s gonna take me 10 years to develop something. So if we can look forward and be like, Wow, our weather patterns are changing, such that we may get this disease that we’ve never seen before. Okay, well, let’s start me know, maybe getting that resistance into our program. Right now, a lot of our trials are on, you know, an acre of land and we grow on their fields, so worked very closely with them. Also, with the seed companies, with the crop advisors, with the chemical companies, you know, we’re always talking with them about our different varieties, and you know, what resistances, they have, so they know like, Okay, this disease comes, this one’s resistant, but you know, we might need to watch it for this other disease, because it’s just kind of moderately resistant. And so it kind of helps them understand to what’s going on with the individual variety. So a lot of it is about informing the growers in the stakeholders about the varieties, and really the ins and outs of them all the different attributes. So they again, kind of know what to look for.

So talking about diseases, well, what specific pathogens or diseases are you looking at, are you exploring, and how does your process differ when you’re dealing with disease tolerance and pathogen resistance, as opposed to other types of characteristics that you’re developing?

There’s a number of diseases that we deal with across the state. And some of it depends on your cropping system and your rotation, some is just latitude. Up in the northern part of the state where they’ve had snow on the ground since November 6, going on two months of snow cover and probably have another two months, we’ve got to pay attention to that for the growers up there. Across the entire state, there’s a foliar fungal disease called stripe rust. It’s a global pathogen. And you know, we deal with it here. So we’ve got to kind of pay attention to that. And then there’s a couple soil borne diseases that we deal with as well. There’s various other ones. Those that I mentioned, are kind of the annual, yearly most widespread. You know, there’s a few pockets here and there with some viral diseases that we pay attention to as well. They’re just not widespread in the state. You know, when you look at that with any other trait, that’s just what it is, it’s another trait, right? So you kind of have your scale of “must haves.” With snow mold, there’s no option. It’s either resistant or susceptible. You can’t spray something on it that’s economical anyway, right, there’s no way to control it. So you know, that’s kind of like a half do for the growers up there. If you don’t have that tolerance, they aren’t going to grow it as a variety. And then there’s other ones like some of the foliar diseases, it’s like, well, it doesn’t have to be 100% resistant. But you know, you want it to be fairly stable. But if something happens, and a grower needs to spray it, they could. But like I say we try and eliminate that if we can, but that’s one where we can kind of go to a moderately resistant variety and still have it acceptable for the growers. We would never go susceptible and be like, Yeah, you gotta spray it five times, but it’ll be right. You know, but it might be something we’re like, Okay, this is one, you might have to watch a little bit and in a severe year, you might need to spray. But like I said, we try and keep it on that resistant, moderately resistant side. Again, you know, with your experience and talking to the growers, you kind of understand what they’re acceptable with and what levels of tolerance are acceptable with and, you know, they may say like, okay, yeah, okay, if I have to watch it, that’s fine. Just don’t give me super susceptible or sometimes it’s nope, if it’s not resistant, no way we’re doing this. So yeah, it’s just this sliding scale. When I teach plant breeding at the university, I kind of tell the students this, they’ll ask me questions, and it always starts with Well, it depends, you know, because there’s usually no one answer for one thing, you know, it’s always changing based on your region or the disease you’re dealing with or something.

We have a few minutes left. I just wanted to get your thoughts on the future of plant breeding, or specifically within winter wheat where you hope it’ll go? Where do you think it’ll go the next 5-10 or so years or even beyond?

With plant breeding and wheat breeding in general, it really is going to be looking at these predictive performance and the predictive modeling. Everything that I’ve seen in all the research that I’ve read, and that I’ve done personally with my graduate students say that it’s helpful, right. And that’s really what you’re trying to do with plant breeding is just bias your population. Like I say, you know, you just want it so that more of the lines that you’re testing have that potential in there, because it’s the worst when you grow out and grow 1000 lines, and you throw away 80% of them, because they were susceptible to a disease, right? Well, shoot, I just wasted all this time. Now, I’m only looking at 200 lines instead of 1000. Right. So if you can make this predictive performance, where you’re like, Hey, these are all going to be all stars. Now really pick the best out of those, it’s really going to push that upper limit of where we can go. Because if you look at trends in a lot of crop breeding, we’re making about a 1-2% gain every year. Right? So yeah, we’re making improvements. But if you then look at the predictions of well, you know, how many people are going to have to feed on less land, the 1% gain isn’t cutting it. And so that’s really where I think this predictive modeling will go in where again, we’ll be able to test more lines that have these favorable characteristics that are the elite varieties. And by testing more of those, you’re gonna find those ones that aren’t beating yield by 1 or 2%. They’re beating it by four or 5%. And then we’re, again starting to look at those traits that we haven’t selected on before. So can we make varieties more water use efficient, more photosynthetically efficient. And as we do that, I think we’ll also see the gains move up faster as well. You know, the combination of the prediction and looking at some of these traits we’ve never been able to look at before, I think we’ll be able to see increased gains. So that’s kind of where I see it going, you know, 10 years from now, I may look back and be like, Well, that was wrong, but you know, you like like most things you do, you know, you take all the information you got with you and make your best guess and, you know, go forward with it. And like I say the research I’ve seen coming out points in that direction.

Any final thoughts? And where can those in our audience find out more about your research?

Yeah, so if you want to find out more about my research, you know, the best thing to do is just look up my faculty page at Washington State University, you know, it’s pretty easy right now just Google somebody’s name, and usually find out everything you want about them. So you know, that’s the best place to go, you know, it lists publications of this my research that I’m doing the varieties we’ve developed, so you can kind of see what my program is doing research on. So that’s the best way to find out information, of course, my emails there. So if people have questions, I’m always happy to answer them or, you know, give them my thoughts on a subject. But ya know, I just appreciate the time here talking with you today. And the closing thought, like I’ve said, is plant breeding is really this interdisciplinary field that’s combining all these different levels of expertise and developing a variety. And I’m just really excited about the future.

Well, thanks again, Arron for stopping by and joining us. I know I learned a lot and it’s super fascinating for me. So thank you again. Stay safe, and we’ll see you next time on We Measure the World!

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