Western innovator: Oat 'toolbox' shakes up research

John O'Connell/Capital Press Eric Jackson, a research molecular biologist with the Aberdeen Research and Extension Center, gives a presentation on his research at a recent Idaho Barley Commission meeting. Jackson is the national winner of this year's ARS early scientist award.

Scientists from around world probe new opportunities in grain's genome

By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

Eric Jackson describes his major contribution to science as a genetic toolbox. The implements he and a colleague developed at the Aberdeen Research and Extension Center dissect the complex genetic code of oats.

There wasn't much oat research being done before Jackson, 39, started work on the toolbox, which he completed three months ago. Now that Jackson's toolbox is fully stocked, researchers throughout the world are advancing theories that promise to revolutionize the oat industry.

Based on his work, the research molecular biologist and geneticist learned in September he's been selected for a national award honoring the top early career scientist within the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. He'll be recognized at a ceremony in Maryland next June. The winner of the ARS award typically goes on to receive the presidential award for early career scientists.

"We have lots of graduate students now working with oats, which we didn't have before, and most of the reason is we've developed the tools to dissect this genome, and you start to draw the scientists in," Jackson said.

Jackson's toolbox is helping Brigham Young University master's student Melissa Coon and a postdoctoral student in Aberdeen, Emir Islamovic, conduct oat fiber research. Another post doctoral student in Aberdeen, Rebekah Oliver, is using it to dissect vitamin E in oats. It's also benefited oat research on antioxidants and lipids.

Thanks to the toolbox, an international team of 30 scientists has convened to dissect an assortment of oat germplasms from throughout the world, with the goal of creating a "super variety."

Starting with seed money from General Mills, the USDA and industry sources have now contributed $1.8 million toward the effort Jackson started. Research is ahead of schedule, and a group of breeders intends to request grants for an additional five years of funding.

"We shouldn't have trouble making this thing go for a long time," Jackson said.

Mary Waters, president of the North American Millers' Association, which represents 95 percent of the dry-milling industry, noted Jackson has provided a map along with the tools. She represents companies that anticipate the genetic markers on Jackson's map will lead to promising oat varieties.

"They see a lot of opportunities for work on cardiovascular disease, some on diabetes and some on childhood obesity," Waters said. "This has been so amazing to have these kinds of results that our folks find very helpful on time, and even ahead of schedule."

His oat research has also resulted in advancements in barley science. Jackson explained oats and barley are similar, but oats have more genes per trait. Because barley genetics are easier to understand, he did his work first in barley before applying it to oats.

Kelly Olson, administrator of the Idaho Barley Commission, said Jackson's barley discoveries could lead to increased antioxidant levels in barley and an extended shelf life for cereal companies.

"He is pretty extraordinary in his productivity and his scientific understanding of the molecular makeup of these cereal crops," Olson said.

Eric Jackson

Age: 39

Hometown: Originally from Mustang, Okla. Now resides in Aberdeen, Idaho

Education: Bachelor's degree from Missouri Southern State University; master's degree in plant pathology University of Arkansas; doctorate from University of Arkansas in plant sciences with an emphasis in molecular biology

Family: Wife and three children

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