Growing Research from Seed Money
You're out with your friends on Friday night, and at some point someone begins
scrawling on a paper napkin and talking a mile a minute. Over the din of the
jukebox and the clink of beer mugs, the scrawls become a shape and the talk
becomes a plan. You think, "What a great idea! If only somebody would
News flash: Somebody does. "That's what we do," says Dorothy Beaton,
executive director of the Agricultural Research Foundation at OSU. "We
give the unusual idea a chance. That's where we take our risks, and that's
where we get our rewards."
The Agricultural Research Foundation is a corporate affiliate of Oregon State
University. Since the mid-1980s, ARF's competitive grants program has funded
many intriguing ideas, some of which have developed into full-blown research
efforts. For example, OSU research on cancer-fighting chemicals in yew trees
and hops got ARF funding back when those projects were not much more than scrawls
on a cocktail napkin.
"They fund ideas," says Pat Dysart, of OSU's Crop and Soil Science
department, who is using ARF funds to look into the weed-killing effects of
western juniper. "Very few sources fund conceptual ideas." A good
idea at the paper napkin stage has little chance of success in the hotly competitive
research-grant market. The foundation's mission is to give researchers the
chance to explore and develop their concepts, and get projects ready to compete
in the national arena.
Several research projects featured over the years in this magazine got
their initial boost from ARF funds. That includes the green roof project on
our current cover and the ground-breaking work with native pollinators described
in our article, "The Other Bees," in this issue. In fact, much of the cost of bringing you these stories in living
color is funded by an ARF special grant.
Every year ARF's General Fund awards monies for new research projects aimed
at advancing and improving agricultural technologies. For fiscal year 2007-2008,
the foundation granted $372,235, initiating 33 new projects. Some of the upcoming
wild ideas include testing flexible biofilms to protect apples from sunburn
and developing heart-healthy chicken eggs.
So if you're a researcher with an unusual idea, hang onto those beer-stained
A "GREEN" WEED KILLER
Like a lot of intriguing ideas funded by the Agricultural Research Foundation,
this one began with a quirky observation. For years, people had noticed that
juniper trees seem to inhibit the growth of other vegetation around them.
Populations of western juniper have surged in recent years across the dry
inland West. Although it is a native species, its proliferation is drying up
streams and outcompeting native grasses. Working with weed scientist Carol
Mallory-Smith, Pat Dysart wondered whether something in the plant's chemistry
might be killing or retarding the growth of neighboring plants. If so, they
thought, might it be possible to use its toxic power as a weed-killer?
Grants from ARF allowed Dysart and Mallory-Smith to test their idea in greenhouse
experiments, where they found that juniper leaves do inhibit germination of
troublesome rangeland weeds, including medusahead and cheatgrass. The researchers
are now taking their experiments to the field to test various ways to apply
the juniper—as dried leaves, juniper tea, or leaf-and-stem mulch—and
evaluate how well each works to keep weeds from sprouting. Dysart and Mallory-Smith
are working with Jason Smith, a range specialist on the Warm Springs Reservation,
where their field plots are located. The OSU research dovetails with the Tribes'
efforts to remove invasive juniper from their rangelands. "We really appreciate
the collaboration of the Tribes," says Dysart. "They've furnished
all our juniper, cut it and brought it over to us, and they've helped us with
installing and monitoring our experiment."
It's too soon to tell whether juniper will be developed into a commercial
herbicide, says Mallory-Smith. But their work could help land managers and farmers
harness the weed-killing power of this aggressive tree. In the meantime, the
researchers have gained an additional $70,000 in funding from the USDA's Natural
Resources Conservation Service. "If it weren't for our initial support from
ARF, the project would certainly not have been as successful," Dysart says.
IT PAYS TO KNOW YOUR NOODLES
The people of Asia love their noodles, and they eat a lot of them—fresh,
boiled, dried, steamed, or instant. Some of Oregon’s wheat crop is sold
for noodle making in the Asian market. Oregon will sell even more, believes
Andrew Ross, once hard white wheats—perfect for noodles—are developed
and widely planted here.
Ross, a cereal chemist with OSU’s Crop and Soil Science department,
is an expert on flours used to make Asian noodles. He is working with OSU plant
breeder Jim Peterson to develop hard white wheat that will thrive in West Coast
climates. (Most of Oregon’s wheat is of the soft white class, used chiefly
for cookies, cakes, and pastry flour.) Ross is using his ARF funding to develop
tests of noodle doughs made from different varieties of wheat. His goal is
to devise precise metrics for all the qualities noodle makers care about: springiness,
elasticity, slipperiness, compressibility, consistency or “feel,” and
a host of others. These qualities change from dough to dough because of differences
in levels of gluten protein and starch in different varieties of wheat seeds.
Ross whips up his recipes in special recording mixers that measure how springy
the dough is and how well it forms into a ball. He squashes balls of dough
between two plexiglass cylinders to measure how readily it compresses into
sheets and how long it takes to relax after kneading. He squeezes boiled noodles
with machines that measure their firmness, springiness, and resilience, important
qualities for the discerning noodle consumer.
In the days when most noodles were made by hand, dough makers relied on their
experienced touch. “They knew when to add a bit more water, a bit more
flour, or give them one more pass with the rolling pin,” says Ross. Now,
consistency (in both senses of the word) is critical because the dough has
to work reliably with industrial-scale noodle machines and deliver identical
noodle quality time after time.
Ross’s noodle measurements connect to Peterson’s wheat-breeding
process, selecting wheat cultivars that have the best noodle-making qualities.
Ross is assembling all his metrics into an index of product quality, so that,
as hard white wheat gains acreage here, growers can assure Asia that Oregon wheat
makes great noodles.
YOU CAN TAKE THE BERRY OUT OF THE FARM BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE
THE FARM OUT OF THE BERRY
Discriminating coffee drinkers are willing to pay top dollar for coffee grown
in Kona, Hawaii. But don't trust the label. About ten times more coffee is
sold as "Kona coffee" than is actually grown on the island, says
Kim Anderson. So the likelihood that you're drinking real Kona coffee is about
one in ten.
Anderson, a chemist in OSU's Environmental and Molecular Toxicology department,
has developed a way to read a plant's chemical "fingerprint" to pinpoint
where the plant was grown. Her work could stem the widespread mislabeling of
high-value food like coffee, blueberries, strawberries, and even salmon. It
could also potentially help authorities track the flow of illegal plant-based
Anderson started out profiling potatoes at the University of Idaho. Because
Idaho potatoes enjoy a market premium, some packing houses were putting Idaho
labels on potatoes that were grown in other places. She developed a method
to chemically distinguish an Idaho potato from one grown in Maine or Peru.
Her work helped the Idaho Potato Commission win a lawsuit against the fraudulent
How does profiling work? Anderson analyzes a plant's tissues to detect the
ratio of certain micronutrients to one another—copper, sodium, potassium,
iron, zinc, and others—and also the ratio of certain isotopes of carbon
and nitrogen. Because these elements are present in different quantities in
soils in different places, they will appear in distinctive ratios in tissues
of plants grown in those soils. Thus, strawberries grown in the Willamette
Valley have a different chemical fingerprint from those grown in Chile. It's
possible to make even finer distinctions, between fruit grown in adjacent counties
or even adjacent fields.
Anderson is using her latest grant from the Agricultural Research Foundation
to develop an isotope-based fingerprint for salmon, to determine whether it's
wild or farmed. Because farmed salmon is much cheaper than wild, "you
can imagine that someone might be willing to mislabel it."