New lab speeds plant breeding efforts

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press Michael Kahn, associate director of the Washington State University Agriculture Research Center, looks over the phenomics facility March 15 on the university campus in Pullman, Wash.

Traits such as disease resistance can be expensive to track genetically


Capital Press

PULLMAN, Wash. -- A new laboratory at Washington State University will help breeders more quickly pick out key traits in plants.

The $250,000 phenomics lab measures different attributes of a plant, such as height, chlorophyll in its leaves, how fast the leaves grow and how efficient photosynthesis is or how it changes with light fluctuations, said Michael Kahn, associate director of the WSU Agricultural Research Center. A camera takes photographs that allow researchers to see how plants develop.

The goal is to help breeders screen plants for a superior combination of traits that may be more difficult to find, such as disease resistance.

Some traits can be followed with genetic markers, but genetic screening is expensive and difficult, Kahn said. He hopes to reduce the amount of screening required and save years in the breeding process.

Kahn said research efforts include yield, pest and disease tolerance and crop timing.

Breeders will be able to immediately remove those plants that don't have the desired performance after a genetic cross, said Michael Neff, WSU assistant professor.

Neff said the facility is able to change temperature and growth conditions to anticipate changes in weather patterns.

WSU researchers hope to follow a plant through its life cycle.

"A plant at 10 a.m. is not the same as a plant at 2 p.m.," Kahn said. "We think some of those things that might be able to improve yield would have to do with the differences between a plant at 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon."

The lab is primarily working with arabidopsis and camelina right now, and expects to begin looking at grasses and other crops, including wheat, in the next few months.

A USDA grant supports the facility, but will run out in 2013. Kahn hopes to bring in additional funding to operate it.

Australian researchers have used phenomics to develop wheat cultivars with salt tolerance.

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