Wheat genotyping expected to benefit from machine's precision
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Deven See watched as his guest attempted to fit a laboratory tool with thin tips into one long row on a tiny platform full of 384 holes.
Even with training and experience, it can take a researcher a long time to do it by hand, said See, research geneticist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
"Getting all those lined up is not very easy," he said. "If you get distracted anywhere in this process, the potential of putting the wrong sample in the wrong well could cause a mistake."
The Pullman, Wash.-based Western Regional Small Grain Genotyping Laboratory recently received a piece of technology to help with the process of selecting molecular markers in wheat and barley.
With funding from the Washington Grain Commission, the laboratory purchased a $70,000 liquid-handling robot, which has been in operation since late September.
"It basically works by doing what we normally do, but doing so in a very high frequent fashion very accurately," See said.
The robot works with 96 tips at once on a high volume, balancing DNA from each individual wheat plant, primers to help start reactions, salts, nucleotides and other things all within a 12-microliter reaction.
Once the reactions are complete, they are analyzed in other equipment in the lab, also purchased with grain commission funding, See said.
"It provides an added bit of security in the fact it doesn't make mistakes," he said.
The lab primarily works with wheat breeders and scientists in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Montana and Utah. See said researchers are primarily looking for genes for resistance to diseases, such as rusts.
They also look for traits to indicate different qualities of wheat, such as adaptability and growth habits.
As wheat breeders work to make advance lines, the lab is able to screen thousands of them, enabling breeders to generate cultivars to the farmers more quickly and accurately.
A wheat line can be highly resistant for several years, but eventually, the pathogen breaks it down and the industry must move onto the next-best line, See said.
"As wheat scientists, we're never going to be able to get completely ahead of all the diseases," he said.
See expects work in the lab to continue. Fungi evolve and adapt faster than wheat plants do, he said, so there will always be a need for wheat breeders to conduct research or seek further improvement for yield or quality.
"There's always additional questions we have to address," See said.
Matthew Weaver is based in Spokane, Wash. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.