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Scientists pursue new test as part of falling number research

The Washington Grain Commission approves a $150,000 research project at Washington State University to get closer to a genetic solution to falling number.
Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Published on October 10, 2017 5:58PM

Aaron Porter of the Washington State Department of Agriculture demonstrates the falling number test. Washington State University researchers want to develop a quick test for starch damage in wheat.

Capital Press File

Aaron Porter of the Washington State Department of Agriculture demonstrates the falling number test. Washington State University researchers want to develop a quick test for starch damage in wheat.

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SPOKANE — Washington wheat farmers will fund a $150,000 project that researchers say could produce a quicker test for starch damage in wheat.

Starch damage in wheat is caused by pre-harvest germination that hurts the quality of baked goods and noodles. The current test, called the falling number test, measures the viscosity of a slurry of wheat and water by timing a paddle or pin as it drops through the mixture. When the falling number is less than 300 seconds, the starch is damaged.

Farmers were caught off guard last year when roughly 44 percent of soft white wheat samples and 42 percent of club wheat samples scored below 300, the industry standard.

The Washington Grain Commission recently approved funding for two-year research project to develop a quicker test. The request by Washington State University spring wheat breeder Mike Pumphrey is for $75,000 each year.

Farmers don’t have a rapid, high-throughput, cheap test for falling number. It takes 10 to 21 days to get falling number test results, Pumphrey said.

Pumphrey envisions a quick test similar to a pH test on a swimming pool that would give farmers an idea of the likely results when their grain is tested in a laboratory.

“That’s critically important at the early stages of grain handling, before you’re mixing loads that could potentially be good or bad,” he said.

“This is about a test, but it also will facilitate better research into solving problems,” said Mike Miller, chairman of the commission. “Every facet of the industry has come to the commission in the last year and a half and asked for us to help solve the riddle.”

Pumphrey and other WSU scientists want to gain access to Bayer AG’s existing test, which identifies the presence of certain proteins associated with the enzyme alpha amylase, which is required for wheat seed germination but is also the culprit that damages wheat starch.

Access would eliminate extra steps for WSU researchers to develop similar antibodies on their own, Pumphrey said.

The researchers hope to differentiate between the two causes of low falling number, late maturity alpha amylase, known by the initials LMA, and pre-harvest sprouting. LMA is associated with rapid temperature changes about 21 days after the wheat plant flowers. Pre-harvest sprouting is caused by rain as the grain nears maturity.

The problems are caused by different gene families, so breeders must be able to identify the right genes to put molecular markers in place to screen germplasm for resistance, said Rich Koenig, associate dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.

Koenig said the problem is solvable if researchers can find genetic resistance.

“(If) you proactively breed for it, not that it will never come up again, but you can build in the insurance to lower the risk,” he said.

Low falling numbers haven’t been a problem in the 2017 crop.



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