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Cook looks ahead to biotech 'breakthrough'

Published on May 7, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on June 4, 2011 9:59AM


Capital Press

PULLMAN, Wash. -- R. James Cook expects the next advances in agriculture science to come from genetics.

"I can't think of how much more fine-tuning we can do on management," the Wolf Prize for Agriculture winner told the Capital Press before a May 5 reception in his honor on the Washington State University campus.

Cook believes the next advances will come from biotechnology. He never worked with it, but often spoke in favor of it.

"That is where we're going to get the next breakthrough to solve root disease problems," he said. "Biotechnology is going to have to give us access to genes in some of the very microbes helping to defend wheat now."

Raised on a farm in Minnesota, Cook said he couldn't believe it when he received the phone call from the Wolf Foundation at 5:45 a.m. Feb. 15

"It's definitely a verification that the research I was asked to do and hired to do was a great opportunity for somebody to have success," he said. "It was very important work, or it wouldn't have been recognized by the Wolf Foundation."

The award recognizes people who have had an impact on agriculture, Cook said.

Cook set out to get the correct information so farmers could make the right decisions. Cook said he had to deal with misperceptions like crop rotation helps to maintain soil fertility -- it's actually to maintain the health of the roots -- or the perceived toxicity of Roundup, as farmers were applying it too close to planting.

"We learned to do a lot of things through cultural practices," he said, including applying fertilizer beneath the seed for sick roots to get to it, widening rows to warm and dry the soil and clearing out straw from seed rows.

Making the fundamental discovery of the "green bridge" -- wheat planted into its own straw was affected by a root disease -- opened the door for further advances, Cook said, comparing the process to having all the numbers fall into place in a game of Sudoku.


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