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Student Andy Hogg pauses for a moment while checking the health of experimental wheat plots near Bozeman. (Jeannine Lintner photo)

Genetics are key to those amber waves of grain

By Annette Trinity-Stevens

In the 1970s comedic film "Love and Death," the main character-Boris Grushenko-laments his certain death in a duel scheduled for dawn the following morning. "To die before the harvest," he moans. "The crops... the grains... fields of rippling wheat. All there is in life is wheat."

Probably a nod to the Russian literature the film satirizes, the scene came to mind not long ago when Andy Hogg, a blond-haired Montana State University graduate student, stood in a field of green grain west of Bozeman.

No, Hogg didn't say,"Fields of rippling wheat." But it was hard to see him wander through a plot of spring wheat, its leaves licked by a stiff wind, and not think expansive thoughts about the intimate connection between human civilization and this most essential of grains.

Wheat first grew between the Tigris and the Euphrates before spreading throughout the world. In history peasants have been cruelly deprived of it, young laborers have crossed oceans to harvest it, homesteaders have gone bust trying to grow it. And still it waves its amber waves, it undulates like the sea.

If people like Hogg wax philosophical at the sight of a wheat field, they don't say. That type of behavior is probably for city folks. But ask them-or any plant scientist for that matter-about the details of what they do to make crops better, and they're not so reticent.

Here's what some of them said lately.

Standing in the field

Jason Cook has known the grind of ripe wheat between his teeth. The master's student from Big Sandy has planted, sprayed, harvested and everything in between-including biting kernels to test their readiness-at his family's central Montana wheat farm.

Today, though, he's in a laboratory at MSU-Bozeman, finishing a project on wheat stem sawfly before starting a Ph.D. in plant breeding at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Cook has found a genetic marker for solid stemmed wheat, a characteristic that stops wheat stem sawflies from colonizing inside hollow wheat stems and clipping them off near the base.

Wheat stem sawflies are the No. 1 insect pest in Montana wheat. And while entomologists are making progress combatting them, breeders are assaulting the problem from their angle, too. Varieties that are resistant to the infestations exist, said MSU spring wheat breeder Luther Talbert, but their yields are lower than non-resistant varieties. Talbert is using the genetic marker Cook found to introduce the solid-stemmed trait into the well-known and high-yielding McNeal spring wheat, which means farmers may be able to have their sawfly resistance and their high yields, too.


Student Julie Elser of Ennis is continuing Cook's work on wheat stem sawfly resistance for a new variety of spring wheat. (Jeannine Lintner photo)

"Improvements like this can mean millions of dollars," said Talbert, doing some quick mental math. "Then that variety becomes the base for the next improvement."

A solid-stemmed McNeal is probably 4 or 5 years away from market, but another solid-stemmed variety-Choteau-is closer. Cook had a hand in that development, too.

Before leaving for his next round of graduate school, Cook has taught undergraduate Julie Elser a lot of what he knows. Now Elser will continue the project by figuring out which minor genes-in addition to the major one Jason found-contribute to solid stems.

The two students seem casual about this, despite the fact that the wheat genome-its biological code for existence-has 17 billion bases, like telegraphic information on a ticker tape that could unfurl for miles.

That reality is not lost on Talbert.

"It's pretty amazing, I have to admit. The [lab] technology is pretty remarkable," he said before pausing. "But the true test of new lines still comes from the field research. Both are a lot of fun."

Protein combo

Jason Cook (right) of Big Sandy has helped breeder Luther Talbert (left) develop a variety resistant to wheat stem sawfly, the No. 1 insect pest in Montana wheat fields. (Jeannine Lintner photo)

Crush hard wheat and it shatters like glass. Mill a soft one and it powders. Breadmakers want the shardlike particles because they make the sturdiest loaves. Give the silky, finer flour to the pastry chef for cakes and sweets.

What makes a wheat better for the baker or better for the pastry chef comes down to two proteins with long names, but A and B will do for now.

MSU geneticist Mike Giroux has a set of wheat lines that run from hard to soft with nearly everything in between. In other words, some of those wheats have protein A and not B. In others, B is there but not A. Still others have both A and B.

These differences in A and B matter to millers and bakers, so they matter to farmers. What if farmers could grow a wheat that is softer, for example, requiring less energy to mill (and less money) and still made a good loaf of bread? The softer wheat may fetch a premium price.

"It's becoming more and more a niche market [for wheat]," explained MSU geneticist Jack Martin."The variety is specific to the end user, and there may be end uses we don't even know of yet."

Protein A and B, then, become important for a broad spectrum of end uses, which is why Andy Hogg tends fields of rippling wheat west of Bozeman. Hogg is working with Giroux and Martin on finding the optimal A/B protein combination package for the best noodle, loaf, cake, cookie, homemade Playdough, pie or steamed bread that a wheat can possibly make.

When Giroux and the others know the ultimate A/B combo for a specific market-and they've already done a lot of work on the genetics of this-they get to talk to Talbert or winter wheat breeder Phil Bruckner about breeding it into a variety right for Montana.

Meanwhile, they're also looking at the genes that underlie yield and herbicide resistance. But that's another story.

Weed 'em and reap

Hogg's wheat plot, by the way, was in pretty good shape. No wild oats, whose heads often top out above the crops as if in a brazen display of the water they steal.


Breeder Jamie Sherman works with experimental wheat lines in the Plant Growth Center at MSU. (Jeannine Lintner photo)

Wild oats have been known to reduce wheat yields by 60 percent in the Flathead Valley, where MSU plant scientist Bob Stougaard works. Elsewhere in Montana they're a problem too, and spraying them with herbicides costs farmers a lot of money.

But bigger seeds, Stougaard and Duane Johnson think, could slow those wild oats. Both men work at the Northwestern Agricultural Research Station near Kalispell. Johnson is the superintendent. Mick Mickelson at the Southern Agricultural Research Center in Huntley is working with them.

Plant larger wheat seeds and you get more vigorous seedlings which could outcompete the wily weeds, the thinking goes. Milling and baking characteristics seem to be better, too. So Stougaard and Johnson are breeding for seed size using wheat varieties chosen from a world collection and crossing them with Montana varieties.

At the same time, the two scientists are looking for other wheat traits that might confer greater competitiveness against weeds.

"This research direction could go on forever," Stougaard said in an interview when the project began. But he hopes to have some varieties to test statewide next year. Just imagine fields of rippling wild-oat-free wheat.

Boris duels but lives

By the way, Boris Grushenko, the Russian peasant in "Love and Death," doesn't die in the duel. He dies later, and his wife mentions his favorite grain.

"I'm dead," Grushenko complains, "and they're talking about wheat."

The projects described in this story are funded by the Montana Research and Commercialization Board, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private sources. They represent a small fraction of all plant improvement and other agricultural research done through the MSU College of Agriculture and the Montana Agricultural Experiment Stations, which totalled about $32.5 million in fiscal year 2003.

State program funds more than wheat research


State Research and Commercialization Board dollars contribute to a wide range of agricultural projects, including Cathy Cripps' work with a Missoula company on improving shiitake mushroom cultivation. (C. Cripps photo)

Wheat fields aren't the only places to potentially benefit from research funded by the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology. So are places that grow sugar beets, alfalfa, potatoes, barley, herbs, specialty oils and a novel grain called Indian rice grass.

By law, 20 percent of the board's funding must go toward production agriculture, the state's largest industry.

But some of the board's projects are anything but traditional. Mushroom farming is a good example. MSU scientist Cathy Cripps is working with Garden City Fungi in Missoula to make its production of shiitake mushrooms more efficient.

Identifying strains of fungi that grow well in colder climates is one focus. Producing mushrooms on straw-an abundant medium in Montana-rather than the more expensive hardwood sawdust is another.


Duane Johnson of the Northwestern Ag Research Center near Kalispell is working to lower production costs for area mint farmers. (Carol Flaherty photo)

In fact, Cripps mentored a student who experimented with all kinds of potential mushroom-growing media. Coffee grounds, cardboard, paper, egg cartons, even blue jeans were tried. The jeans worked, but the mushrooms weren't tested for taste.

Meanwhile, Duane Johnson of the Northwestern Agricultural Research Center near Kalispell is using board money to experiment with less-expensive ways of seeding peppermint. At issue is lower mint prices-$15 per pound for oil in 1998 versus $8.50 per pound today-hence, Johnson's interest in lowering production costs for state growers.

Mint grows from plant culture, not seeds, and growers have been paying $300 to $500 per acre to plant peppermint roots from Idaho. Johnson wants to take embryos from Montana plants, encapsulate them in gelatin, and plant the pellets with traditional seeding equipment at a cost of about $100 per acre. The pellets look like salmon eggs, only they're green inside. Field trials start this fall. Johnson's company partner is Lake's Glacier View Farm in Ronan.

Annette Trinity-Stevens
Life on Ice | Big things from tiny technology | Avalanche Research | Searching Through Hell
Genetics are key to those amber waves of grain | From the bone beds and back
Finding hope in hard times | Group rethinks radar with lasers and crystals | Foreword | Home
Student passion, purpose create "Way of the Warrior"
Chemistry sounded good until the sinus infections
Research Notes | Faculty and Student Awards | Research Expenditures for Fiscal Year 2003

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