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Idaho wheat to get molecular geneticist

Sean Ellis

Capital Press

The Idaho Wheat Commission will provide the start-up money needed to create a wheat molecular geneticist position at the University of Idaho. That person will work at the molecular level to identify and develop new traits that can benefit Idaho farmers.

MOSCOW, Idaho — The Idaho Wheat Commission will provide $539,000 over three years to establish a soft white winter wheat molecular geneticist program at the University of Idaho.

The decision reflects a shift away from a traditional wheat breeding program in north Idaho and toward a program that will work at the molecular level to develop better traits such as drought or disease resistance or more efficient use of fertilizer.

IWC Executive Director Blaine Jacobson said the addition of a molecular geneticist position at UI could prove to be a huge benefit to Idaho’s wheat industry.

“We hope that it will be a game-changer,” he said. “We hope that it will significantly ratchet up the technology that we are bringing to wheat in Idaho.”

While traditional wheat breeding involves seeds and whole plants, the focus of the new position will be on the use of molecular biology to explore DNA and genes.

The molecular geneticist will develop the traits but a traditional wheat breeder will still take the final steps and bring it toward commercialization.

The university hopes to have a molecular geneticist hired and working by late fall or early winter, said Donn Thill, associate dean of research at UI’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

That person will focus on developing what UI officials call value-added or trait-enhanced germplasm that can be incorporated into new varieties that benefit Idaho growers.

“It’s kind of a new frontier and it’s a more focused frontier than we have had in the past,” said IWC member Bill Flory, a north Idaho farmer. “Specific traits are what make great varieties.”

Traditional wheat breeding efforts in north Idaho will continue through an agreement reached in 2012 between UI, the IWC and Limagrain Cereal Seeds, one of the world’s largest seed companies.

Thill said the new position, in conjunction with the Limagrain partnership, will allow researchers to use the best and fastest methods to develop new traits and get them incorporated into new varieties quickly.

The new focus, he said, will reduce the turnaround time needed to get “the new varieties out that will keep our wheat growers in Idaho competitive in the international grain market.”

IWC Chairman Ned Moon said a company like Limagrain can get new varieties to the market two to three years faster than a university can.

The ability to get varieties with new traits tailored specifically to Idaho’s weather and soil conditions to growers much quicker will be a major benefit of the new position, he said.

“It’s amazing how fast private industry can move things,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for the wheat industry in Idaho.”

Thill said the wheat industry needs a continuous supply of new traits to remain viable and that can best be achieved by the type of work the wheat molecular geneticist will do.

“The concept makes sense to us. We have high hopes for it,” said IWC member Gordon Gallup, an east Idaho farmer.


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