Fifty years ago, meadowfoam was known simply as a wildflower, growing along intermittent waterways in southern Oregon and northern California. Now it’s an agricultural crop gaining increasing attention from oil markets around the world. Oregon meadowfoam growers annually sell oil worth more than $2 million on the world market.
Growing unruly wild plants is very different than cultivating domesticated crops. OSU scientists have spent the past 40 years refining characteristics of meadowfoam. The OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science has released several improved varieties during the past two years. Research is now underway to affirm the potential for conservation tillage planting of meadowfoam, a practice that could significantly reduce production costs. It’s anticipated that more than 2,000 acres of meadowfoam will be planted in the fall of 2004.
The oil refined from meadowfoam seed is used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and machinery lubricants. Because it’s biodegradable, it’s useful in environmentally sensitive areas and is currently being evaluated as a lubricant for machinery used in national parks and on ocean-going vessels.
“Federal funding has been essential to the progress we’ve achieved so far,” said Russ Karow, head of the OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science. “Private industry and grower organi-zations don’t have the ability to support the high cost or take the risk on research needed to develop new crops. This research must be a priority of land grant universities as we face the uncertainties of oil supplies in today’s world.”
New Sun Grant Explores Bio-based Energy and Products
Oregon State University is helping to reduce America’s reliance upon imported fossil fuels, as part of the new Sun Grant Initiative passed by Congress earlier this year. The initiative is meant to enhance our nation’s energy security, promote environmental sustainability and revitalize rural economies.
In the legislation, OSU was named one of five centers of excellence that will conduct research, education and outreach programs exploring bio-based energy and products. The program investigates ways to use sustainable agricultural products that are based on energy from the sun—instead of petroleum—for the direct production of fuels and many other consumer products.
The legislation, promoted by Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, with support from Sen. Ron Wyden and Oregon’s congressional delegation, calls for funding of up to $75 million by 2007 to be shared among five land grant universities.
“This is a major opportunity for OSU to help solve some fairly serious energy problems and address the crisis in the agricultural sector at the same time,” said Thayne Dutson, director of Oregon’s Agricultural Experiment Station and dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU.
With existing and newly created types of processing, various agricultural products have the potential to become fuels such as ethanol or bio-diesel. They can be used in the production of electrical power, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, building materials and many other products.
Development of bio-based energy may make it possible to reduce the nation’s need for the fossil fuels that now serve these functions. Ultimately, the program should also help relieve shortages of electrical power and record high prices for gasoline and natural gas. And, finding new ways to use sustainable agricultural products should provide additional markets for farm families and rural communities across the nation, according to Dutson.
In addition, he says, OSU’s research strengths in genetic engineering, cropping systems and sustainable agricultural production should be an excellent fit with the goals of the new initiative.
“There’s no doubt that our scientists at OSU can help this program capitalize on many opportunities in bioenergy,” Dutson said. “We’re ideally suited to help lead this initiative.”
The Healthy Potential for Purple Tomatoes
Researchers at Oregon State University have created purple-fruited tomatoes that include anthocyanins—the same class of health-promoting pigments in red wine that function as antioxidants and are believed to prevent heart disease.
Domestic tomato varieties grown and consumed in the United States do not normally produce fruit containing any anthocyanin, explained Jim Myers, OSU’s Baggett-Frazier professor of vegetable breeding. The success in producing anthocyanin-containing tomatoes—through traditional breeding techniques—could help researchers develop even more new varieties of tomatoes with other nutrients, both for home gardeners and for the food industry, he added.
Anthocyanins give berries and grapes their blue, purple and red color. These pigments also function as antioxidants, believed to protect the human body from oxidative damage that may lead to heart disease and cancer, according Myers.
“Tomatoes are second only to the potato in terms of the top vegetable consumed in the world,” Myers said. “Per capita use in the U.S. in 2003 was 89 pounds of tomatoes per person. If we could boost the nutritional value of tomatoes, a large part of the population would benefit.”
The OSU researchers developed the anthocyanin tomato through the characterization of the inheritance pattern of a little-studied gene in tomatoes called “anthocyanin fruit” (Aft). Myers and his OSU graduate students crossed a domestic tomato plant with a genetic stock of tomato that included a gene incorporated from a wild relative with anthocyanin-containing fruit and the Aft gene. The result: a domestic-type tomato fruit containing the purple pigment and the Aft gene.
The discovery is just the latest in a long history of vegetable breeding at Oregon State University. For more than 40 years, OSU vegetable breeders W.A. Frazier, James Baggett, and now Myers have developed more than a dozen tomato varieties for commercial and home growers around the world.
Assisting Myers on this latest research were graduate students Carl M. Jones, now at the University of California-Davis, and Peter Mes.
Working on his doctoral research, Mes is breeding new crosses of tomatoes and analyzing the antioxidant activity of not only anthocyanins in the fruits, but also carotenoids, another class of beneficial phytonutrients.
“The medical and nutritional research industries all are keenly interested in the health benefits of phytochemicals in all sorts of fruits and vegetables,” said Myers. “We are happy to find out we can accomplish this in tomatoes using traditional, classical plant breeding techniques.”
From the Archives
Sixty-six years ago at the Agricultural Experiment Station, bugs splatting on windshields gave entomologists an idea.
They rigged a funnel-shaped screen onto the side of a car. At the back of the funnel was a little bag to collect the netted insects.
This 1938 photo shows Ken Gray, an AES entomologist, with the Bugmobile. After driving a few miles past agricultural fields, Gray and his colleagues from USDA could collect enough bugs to tell which field pests had emerged and were flying at that moment in any given district.
Gray, born in 1905 in Marquam, Oregon, was an entomologist at Oregon State College Agricultural Experiment Station from 1930 to 1944. During his career, he took more than 20,000 photographs of insects and related arthropods.
His images are still much in use today in OSU College of Agricultural Sciences classes and on OSU’s Nursery Integrated Pest Management website.
About 5,000 images of Ken Gray’s collection have been digitized and are available to the public through a web-based database application. Visit it: oregondigital.org/sets/ken-gray
Silencing Crown Gall Disease
A new discovery by a team of researchers at Oregon State University could help solve a multi-million dollar problem for the nursery industry. The researchers have developed a way to provide plants with total resistance to crown gall disease, a pervasive disease that plagues nursery and horticultural industries around the world.
Crown gall disease can cause tumors to grow on plants, usually on their roots. The disease reduces crop yields and affects the structural integrity of plants. In one especially severe outbreak in an Oregon nursery, 14,000 infected fruit trees had to be destroyed in a single season.
The team, headed by microbiologist Walt Ream and horticulture professor Machteld Mok, and their colleagues at Dry Creek Laboratory in Hughson, California, used a technique called “gene silencing” that allows plants to prevent expression of tumor-inducing bacterial genes.
“Crown gall can be a disaster for nursery owners,” said Ream. “The problem is serious enough that it’s illegal to sell a plant that has been infected. This new technique should work on a wide variety of plants.”
Crown gall disease is caused by a soil-borne bacterium, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, that can genetically transform plant cells to grow as tumors. These bacteria are found throughout the world, including native grasslands that have never been cultivated. It’s not unusual for a single gram of soil to harbor a million or more Agrobacterium cells.
The researchers have tested their new genetic technology with tobacco plants and apple trees and found that it can provide complete protection from the disease. And the technology could be applicable to a wide variety of other fruit, nut and ornamental trees and plants—everything from grapes to roses, apple trees and chrysanthemums—that can suffer impacts from crown gall disease.
In Oregon and Washington, crown gall disease causes the destruction of at least $400,000 of nursery stock a year. That figure does not include losses in established orchards and vineyards. In California, a typical walnut orchard loses 1 to 2 percent of its trees every year to crown gall, at a cost of at least $1 million a year.
“We’ve already demonstrated the efficacy of this approach with tobacco and apples, and other scientists have used it effectively on walnuts,” Ream said. “It appears we can make this system work with most plants, and create varieties that are genetically resistant to the damaging effects of crown gall disease.”
The commercial use of this technology may focus on the rootstocks of plants, which are often grafted with fruiting wood of various types above the root. According to Ream, this would prevent concerns about movement of newly engineered characteristics into other plants, since the genetically changed part of the plant would play no role in its seed production, pollination or other reproductive systems.
Check out our newest gold medalist
Competing against magazines and electronic periodicals from around the country, both Oregon’s Agricultural Progress and its new online counterpart, Oregon’s Ag Progress Online, won gold medals this year from the Association for Communication Excellence (ACE).
Although readers have been familiar with the print version of the magazine for 50 years (it’s the magazine you are holding in your hands right now), Oregon’s Ag Progress Online is relatively new.
Since 1997, we’ve been posting stories from the print magazine to the web. But last year, we redesigned the online delivery of the electronic magazine, taking advantage of the flexibility of electronic media to create a new easier-to-use online publication.
We made it easier and faster to access stories. We’ve reformatted all the articles back to 1996, so now there’s a fully searchable archive.
So, in case you want to locate that story about the sex life of slugs (Winter 1997), or the one about Oregon’s wine industry (Winter/Spring 2002), now you can find the story, and email it to a friend. And many of the magazine’s award-winning photos and illustrations are there, too.
Future issues will go online with added features, such as video clips and additional photos. With each new issue of the print magazine, there’s a new issue of Oregon’s Ag Progress Online. A free subscription means that you receive a brief email notice each time we post a new issue. Click the link, and you’re there.
We hope you’ll take a look. It’s easy to find from the web sites of OSU Extension, Agricultural Experiment Station, and the OSU Research Office. Or go directly to oregonprogress.oregonstate.edu
OSU Tunes into a Cooking Innovation
Scientists at Oregon State University are tuned in to a hot new innovation in food preparation—using radio frequencies to quickly and precisely heat food.
The research team has found that by wedging packages of food between electrodes and tuning radio waves to various frequencies, food molecules vibrate and heat up. By varying frequency of the radio waves and apparent resistance to the electric current, the researchers can tune the flow of energy to precisely the amount needed to heat various ingredients in the food, in a process called impedance match. This allows rapid and uniform heating.
For example, a 25-pound Thanksgiving turkey would normally take about six hours to thaw at room temperature and four to six hours to cook in a traditional oven. With variable radio frequency heating, it is possible to thaw and cook that turkey in less than two hours, according to Qingyue Ling, a development engineer with OSU’s Food Innovation Center in Portland and part of the research team.
“By combining variable radio frequency heating with a regular convection oven, the turkey will cook quickly on the inside and be crispy on the outside,” said Ling.
Compare this new technology to the cooking breakthrough of a generation ago: the microwave oven. Microwaves are very high frequency and short wavelengths that do not penetrate very deeply. So a microwave oven is an inefficient way to cook a turkey, because it only cooks the surface and depends on heat conduction to cook the inside.
But radio frequency can be 100 times lower, with wavelengths 100 times longer, than microwaves. They penetrate deeply into food, so food cooks faster with less energy.
“Current microwave technology has about 40 to 60 percent energy efficiency,” said Ling. “This new radio-heating technology could achieve 70 to 80 percent energy efficiency.”
Radio waves also penetrate into wood. There are a few lumber mills in Canada using a version of this process to dry timber, according to Ling. But the volumes of timber, measured in tons, require hours of treatment, whereas the volumes of food, measured in ounces, would require mere seconds or minutes and much more precise temperature control.
The research team has examined different kinds and amounts of food, with heating rates in the broadband ranging from 10 kilohertz to 100 megahertz. The higher limits of this band begin to overlap with FM radio at about 90 megahertz. In radios, televisions or radar systems, a particular frequency is selected from a band of frequencies. This new technology allows the automatic adjustment across variable frequencies to precisely control the level of heat produced, according to Ling.
“Once we identify which frequency we need for each kind of food, we can tune the frequencies more precisely,” Ling said.
Characteristics such as density and moisture affect the conductivity of food. Meats, such as that Thanksgiving turkey for example, have more conductivity than, say, small alfalfa sprouts.
But consider foods that contain an assortment of ingredients, such as ready-to-eat meals, which could contain meat, corn, soy and spices.
“Some ingredients will heat faster than others,” said Ling, “It is a great challenge to uniformly heat food products with different dielectric properties.”
“The challenge will be to understand the dynamic interaction of food ingredients, packaging material and radio frequency field intensity and distribution to ensure optimal heating,” said John Henry Wells, superintendent of the OSU Food Innovation Center. “Continuing research is needed to optimize this technology for various food processing applications.”
Sharing in the most recent patent with Ling and Wells are Yanyun Zhao, a professor and Extension specialist in the OSU Department of Food Science and Technology; Ed Kolbe, a mechanical engineer with the OSU Sea Grant Program; Jae Park, a professor at the OSU Seafood Laboratory in Astoria; and Benjamin Flugstad, an electrical engineer and owner of Flugstad Engineering in Port Hadlock, Washington. OSU and Flugstad Engineering jointly own the patents.
Since 1998, the OSU research team has explored ways to use variable radio frequencies as a heating technology to pasteurize and prepare foods as diverse as surimi, alfalfa sprouting seeds and turkey hot dogs. Since then the Food Innovation Center team has obtained a patent for the concept of variable radio frequency heating and for the design apparatus. It now is in the process of receiving patents for 47 different claims of the new technology and seeking investment funds to develop a prototype of their new technology.