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Company speeds up fruit propagation

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

A Washington State University genomist has started a private company that speeds up propogation of fruit trees and ensures varietal accuracy.

PULLMAN, Wash. — When Amit Dhingra was a boy in New Delhi, India, it was expected that he would grow up to become a doctor, like both of his parents.

That was the way things were done. That was tradition.

But in the eighth grade, young Dhingra — pronounced Ding-gra — was fascinated by plants and took to botany and biology.

“Plants are the reason why life exists on this planet. They give us oxygen to breathe,” he says.

He was particularly interested in photosynthesis, the process through which plants convert light into chemical energy.

“Humans don’t have this thing and it made life possible on this planet. Why study everything else? Let’s go to the root of life and study that,” he said.

Dhingra completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany in India, worked on his doctorate in plant molecular biology at Delhi University and finished it at Rutgers University in New Jersey, in 2000, after receiving a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation.

He worked at Rutgers for a year and then five years in research at the University of Florida and University of Central Florida before becoming an assistant professor at Washington State University in 2006.

Now he’s an associate professor of horticultural genomics and biotechnology. He heads the horticultural genomics laboratory and is a faculty member of the molecular plant sciences graduate program and the National Institutes of Health protein biotechnology training program.

Mapping tree fruit

“When I joined WSU, there was little gene-based information on apples, pears and cherries, so I initially mapped the entire DNA, or genome, of apples, pears and cherries,” he said.

He led the U.S. effort on apples in collaboration with Italian scientists. The results were published in 2010. In June 2013, he released the genomes of Golden Delicious apples, Comice pear, Stella sweet cherries and one bitter and one sweet almond.

Knowing the genomes, or road map, showing which genes control attributes and problems is used to speed up breeding, he said. It also allows genetic engineering, the silencing and inserting of genes, he said. Genetic engineering in other plant systems is done at WSU for evaluation of gene function but no WSU apples are genetically engineered, he said.

He has identified a family of genes that he suspects causes bitter pit in Honeycrisp apples and is working on that.

He has also identified genes that block ripening in pears and natural chemical compounds that can unblock them. Those compounds, he said, will help ripen pears better and more consistently after cold storage and use of the natural molecule, 1-MCP, to delay ripening in storage.

Phytelligence founded

Another innovation is Dhingra’s founding and development of Phytelligence, a private company providing guaranteed, true-to-type plants quickly using micro-propagation and greenhouse processes. Dhingra is controlling partner of Phytelligence, which is licensed by WSU to use micro-propagation protocols, techniques and software Dhingra developed to produce rootstocks, fruit trees and grapes faster and cheaper than traditional nursery methods and ensure their correct identity through high-resolution genetic fingerprinting.

“There is a proper conflict-of-interest process in place to keep my activities as part of the company transparent,” he said.

Twice in the last two years, mix-ups in materials for propagation of new disease-resistant apple rootstock at Washington tree fruit nurseries has led to losses of millions of dollars, Dhingra said. Phytelligence can prevent mix-ups in materials for propagation, he said, by testing the DNA of each plant.

That will be a big help to nurseries, as will be faster production of trees, said Jack Snyder, president of C&O Nursery, Wenatchee, and a Phytelligence board member.

“Amit is very well-educated and forward-thinking. His techniques for the future are going to be overall rewarding to the industry,” Snyder said.

With rapid development of budwood through tissue culture, Phytelligence, working with nurseries, can cut development of rootstock and trees for planting from three years to 15 months, Snyder said.

Tissue culture has been problematic but the key is proper nutrients in the growing medium, Dhingra said.

Small pieces of plant, called explants, are developed into budwood in petri dishes in greenhouses, saving time, space, water, labor, pesticides, fertilizers and avoiding insects, disease and weather, he said.

“We can produce up to 250,000 two-inch tall plants in one year from one starter, one little chunk of explant that can go to nurseries for further growth,” he said.

When WSU’s new WA 38 apple variety, of high interest in the industry as potentially better than Honeycrisp, is ready for release, Phytelligence will be able to dramatically increase availability, producing almost 1 million two-inch plants within a year, Dhingra said.

By speeding up planting and production of orchards with better, robust and uniform trees, Oregon State University agricultural economist Clark Seavert has calculated a grower will be able to make another $400,000 to $500,000 per year off a 300-acre orchard, Dhingra said.

People frequently ask, he said, if Phytelligence will replace Northwest fruit tree nurseries.

“That’s not our goal,” he said. “We can help them be more efficient and cost effective and more competitive globally.”

Phytelligence doesn’t own varieties or have the infrastructure or labor to become a nursery, Snyder said.

C&O and four other major fruit tree nurseries have invested thousands of dollars in Phytelligence, Dhingra said. They are: Van Well Nursery, East Wenatchee; Willow Drive Nursery, Ephrata, Wash.; TRECO, Woodburn, Ore.; and ProTree Nursery, Brentwood, Calif.

Phytelligence has several employees, mostly former WSU graduate students who are co-owners. Started in 2011, the company is still in a start-up mode, having done DNA testing for and scheduled to deliver 20,000 plants to a couple of nurseries this year, Dhingra said.

The company held a reception at the Washington State Horticultural Association annual meeting in early December and there logged interest from nurseries and growers for almost 1 million trees by 2015, he said.

Amit Dhingra

Age: 42

Born and raised: New Delhi, India.

Family: Wife, Deepika, who also has a doctorate in plant molecular biology, works in the WSU genomics lab her husband heads. They have one 9-year-old daughter.

Education: Bachelor of science in botany, Delhi University, India, 1991; master of science in botany (honors), Agra University, India, 1993; doctorate in plant molecular biology at University of Delhi and Rutgers, 2000.

Occupation: Associate professor of horticultural genomics and biotechnology, Washington State University. An affiliate faculty of the Center for Precision Automated & Agriculture Systems, the Molecular Plant Science Program and the National Institutes of Health Protein Biotechnology Training Program. Founder and primary owner of Phytelligence.

Quote: “With Phytelligence we can bring technology from my lab directly to the farmers. It shortens time from discovery to application and engages the scientists, putting them directly in touch with farmers.”

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