On the cover: Secoisolariciresinol, a derivative of flaxseed, is one subject of WSU Professor Norman G. Lewisâ€™ research on plants that produce compounds with cancer preventive properties. Lewis is director of WSUâ€™s interdisciplinary Institute for Biological Chemistry.
Letter from the Associate Dean
Scientists in the Washington State University Agricultural Research Center (ARC) and College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) are making a difference â€” both in the international world of science and in the daily lives of Washington residents. This brochure focuses on just a few of our collective successes on both fronts. In nearly 400 different projects, CAHNRS faculty use cutting-edge science to address emerging needs in agriculture, natural resources, and human sciences, as well as to contribute to the overall scientific knowledge of the world. As you will see in the article on page 2, our scientists are among the most cited in the world. The scientific work done at Washington State University provides the building blocks for other scientific discoveries. The work of WSU researchers is published in Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and this speaks volumes about the overall quality of our endeavors. That quality leads to significant impact for the state of Washington as well. The same science that has drawn the attention and praise of the scientific world translates into real economic, environmental, and health benefits for Washingtonians. For example, the work of Mike Wolcott and Jinwen Zhang to harness the same bacteria used in paper mill waste ponds to produce an increasingly viable source of environmentally friendly biopolymers for bioplastics, glues, and composite building material could reduce our countryâ€™s dependence on foreign oil and provide a new industry for the state. The work of entomologists John Brown and Doug Walsh focuses on integrated pest management techniques for hybrid poplar producers and has resulted in a much more environmentally friendly way of dealing with pests such as the western poplar clearwing moth. Research by Nichole Werner could lead to earlier identification and more effective help for children who are prone to bullying. Please take a moment or two to review this sampling of the quality science being produced at Washington State Universityâ€™s Agricultural Research Center. Its scope and impact are impressive. Best regards Ralph P. Cavalieri Associate Dean College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences
ARC Expenditures for FY 2005-06
Expenditure by Source of Funds 2005-06
Federal Formula Funds
World-Class Rankings for WSU
Over the last decade, Washington State University ranked 24th in the world in terms of “citation impact” in the field of agricultural science, according to the latest issue of Science Watch newsletter, which tracks trends and performance in basic research. WSU was the 13th highest-ranked U.S. university on Science Watch’s top 25 list, which includes universities and national research agencies in Finland, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, Spain, France, Australia, and the United States. “Citation impact” is defined as citations per paper and is a measure of the importance of the science conducted at an institution, as measured by its impact on the research conducted by others. During the same period, Barry Swanson, a food scientist at WSU, was the world’s 22nd most cited author in agricultural sciences, according to the newsletter. “This data illustrates the world-class research conducted by WSU faculty, such as Barry Swanson, and its impact around the globe,” said James Petersen, vice provost for research at WSU. “Seminal research conducted at WSU changes the direction of science and improves lives of individuals around the world. This information illustrates that WSU truly is one of the world’s great land-grant research universities.” Eighty-three of Swanson’s papers were cited 919 times between 1996 and 2006. The figures are based on papers published in 118 journals of agricultural science indexed by Thomson Scientific. “The quality of Dr. Swanson’s scholarship in advancing the discipline of food science is evident in his ranking,” said Ralph Cavalieri, associate dean and also director of WSU’s Agricultural Research Center. Swanson is best known for his work in the control of microbial contaminants in food, fat substitutes, and vegetable processing. He joined the WSU faculty in 1973, and during his career, he has received numerous awards and honors, including twice being named Nalley’s Fine Foods outstanding researcher of the year. In 2002, Swanson was elected a fellow in the Society for Food Science and Technology, Institute of Food Technologists. He currently serves as editor of the Journal of Food Processing and Preservation. “It’s very humbling,” Swanson said. “It’s recognition of a career’s work. I have been at WSU for 33 years and have advised about 25 doctoral students and close to 50 master’s students. Most of the publications and research citations are due to their good work.”
[ The Wonderful World of Plant Phenolics: Scents, Spices, Medicinals, and Biofuels ] Researchers in the laboratory of Norman Lewis, WSU professor and director of the Institute of Biological Chemistry, are dedicated to understanding the often complex biochemical processes involved in plant phenolic biosynthesis. Here they identify how certain plants biosynthesize some of their essential oil components—from eugenol, the essence of cloves widely used as a bactericide and mild analgesic, to methyl chavicol, a characteristic flavor component of basil, to vanilla, the flavor or essence of the vanilla bean. Researchers are also pursuing how plants such as the May apple and flaxseed produce compounds with cancer preventive properties (see cover). Another target is nordihydroguaiaretic acid from the desert shrub known as creosote bush, which is showing extraordinary promise for treatment of cancers of the head and the neck. An even larger effort is establishing how lignins—nature’s second most abundant biopolymers after cellulose—are formed, including identifying their role in plant biochemical mechanisms and in the structure of the plant cell wall. This year, in collaboration with a previous student (David Gang) and researchers at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Lewis’ team reported an exciting discovery regarding how plants make eugenol and methyl chavicol. “With that molecular knowledge in hand, we can devise new biotechnological ways to introduce such desirable characteristics into various plant species of agronomic importance,” Lewis said. In a similar way, understanding the biochemistry of what gives trees and plants their woody (lignified) structures may lead to new ways to produce biofuels and other bioproducts. “Our petrochemical resources are clearly finite,” Lewis said. “The question now is, ‘What can we do with some of the 350,000 or so different plant species to address biofuel demand?’” Much of Lewis’ research focuses specifically on how landbased plants—those with a structural vascular apparatus (akin to the human skeleton)—produce lignins. While lignins help give plants and trees rigidity, they must also be broken down or eliminated in order to be used for production of paper, fuel, and other bioproducts. “The main biotechnological challenge is to take the genetic information leading to these lignified woody tissues and see if these vascular plants can be changed so that their structural properties remain the same, but are easier to break down and/or remove. Manipulating the structural properties of plants will aid in the production of biofuels, such as ethanol,” Lewis said.
Bacteria Break Down Waste, Build Bioplastics
The same type of bacteria that help break down paper mill waste could also become an increasingly viable source of environmentally friendly biopolymers that can be used to make bioplastics, glues, and composite building materials. WSU Professor Mike Wolcott has teamed with fellow WSU Professor and Agricultural Research Center scientist Jinwen Zhang, and other scientists and engineers at the WSU Wood Materials Engineering Laboratory, University of California-Davis, and the Idaho National Engineering Lab to focus on a class of naturally occurring bacteria that produce and store polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) which are chain-like molecules, called polymers, that are found in plastics, glues, wood, plants, and even in mussel shells. “Polymers are what bind the fibers together in wood or plants or plastics,” Wolcott explained. “Until now, the plastics we’ve been using have been petroleum based. We could reduce our dependence on international oil if we could make the way we produce PHAs more cost effective and find new uses for a less-pure version of them.” Firms in the U.S., China, and Brazil have commercially produced PHAs using fermentation techniques for many years. But, Wolcott said, the current process is expensive both financially and environmentally.
] “Commercially produced PHAs are fairly expensive when used in their purest form,” he said. “The bacteria feedstock is expensive because it is raised on glucose, and the chemicals used to extract the polymer from the bacteria are expensive and not very environmentally friendly.” Wolcott’s research group is attacking both challenges. They are exploiting the fact that the same types of bacteria that are being grown commercially for PHAs are also used by paper mills in their water reuse sites to convert phosphates into phosphorous. “The production of PHAs by those bacteria has been fairly low,” he said. “One challenge is to find the right environmental conditions at the wastewater treatment site to enhance production—we are trying to get these guys as fat as possible. By regulating the treatment process, we can substantially increase the amount of PHAs produced, in addition to reducing the phosphates to a very low level.” Wolcott also has developed composite materials that can utilize a simple centrifuge process for extracting the PHAs into a crude form. This physical process is much less damaging to the environment and much less expensive than the chemical extraction process currently used. When used in building materials, the composites can provide a substantial market for the crude PHAs. The result of the group’s work? A more plentiful supply of crude PHAs. Wolcott’s team is also working on finding new uses for less-pure PHAs. He has received grants from both the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy to pursue production of PHAs and new composite materials made with PHAs. Some of those materials include new building materials that potentially could replace wood or traditional plastics. “We are working with the Navy, for example, on new materials for docks, piers, and bridges,” Wolcott said.
Hanford Site Provides Entomological Window to History
In 1943, the U.S. government claimed and fenced 525 square miles in the Columbia Basin for construction of the Hanford Reservation. But that site was home to much more than a Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear facility. Over the past 12 years, WSU entomology Professor Richard Zack and his graduate students have uncovered on the site at least 223 insect species new to the state and 43 insect species new to science. “And those numbers will certainly increase,” Zack said. In 1994, when clean-up efforts at Hanford began, the Nature Conservancy and other organizations asked that the site be kept as an environmental study area, and DOE agreed. Zack won a grant to inventory insects living on the site; to compare them with insects living off the site; and finally, to investigate insect interaction between species and with their environment at Hanford. That work is just now winding down. “This is land that has not changed much since the first Europeans discovered it centuries ago,” he said. “Outside of that fence erected in 1943, however, the land has changed tremendously with irrigation and urbanization. The site provides a window to history, a look at what this Columbia Basin area was like before we started to change it.”
Zack and his students collected more than 3,600 species of arthropods, mostly insects. Of those, approximately 1,800 have been identified by different scientists throughout the world. The remainder still are in the process of being identified. Zack says there were no startling discoveries, rather, there was reaffirmation of some basic entomological tenets. “What we found—and we knew this going in—was that insects, especially, are very much tied to certain habitat requirements,” he said. For example, because of a lack of disturbance, the desert floor is covered with a crust of lichens, mosses, and algae. “There are a lot of insects specifically associated with that crust that you won’t find outside the site … We’re talking about insects that probably 100, 150, 200 years ago would have been very common in this area.” He said, considering the business conducted on the site, the Hanford land is “a very pristine environment.” The administration of President Bill Clinton agreed. In June 2000, Clinton established the Hanford Reach National Monument, which includes the 51-mile long “Hanford Reach,” the last free-flowing, non-tidal stretch of the Columbia River, as well as other tracts of land. The proclamation establishing the monument specifically cites Zack’s work on insect populations. “Such rich and diverse insect populations are important to supporting the fauna in the monument,” it says.
Protecting Poplars from a New Pest
When major producers of hybrid poplars in the Pacific Northwest sought help from Washington State University in 2000 to protect their nearly decade-old stands from pests, entomologists John Brown and Doug Walsh started by targeting the usual suspects. They assumed their research on applying integrated pest management techniques would focus on traditional poplar pests such as the poplar willow borer and the cottonwood leaf beetle. But in 2002, a new pest emerged as a threat to the poplar stands: the western poplar clearwing moth. “In 2001, our pheromone-baited traps captured 95 western poplar clearwing moths in a four-week period,” Brown said. “During the same four-week period in 2002, we found more than 18,000 moths in traps placed at the same locations. It clearly was an outbreak.” According to Brown, the moth larvae burrow through the trees’ cambium layer and into the heartwood, leaving them prone to breakage and blow over, and unusable for saw timber. The pests will girdle the bark on small, newly planted trees, killing them. With more than 36,000 acres of irrigated poplar at risk in eastern Washington and Oregon—much of it nearing maturity for use as saw timber—the potential economic impact to producers like Potlatch Corp., Boise-Cascade, and Green Wood Resources were substantial. In an attempt to stem the outbreak in 2002, the producers applied 44,000 pounds of an organophosphate pesticide, Lorsban ®, to no avail. Other contact pesticides applied to control other pests had no effect on the clearwing moth. To complicate matters, major saw timber retailers, such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, are committed to buying lumber from producers that manage their timber under Forest Stewardship Council guidelines that severely restrict pesticide use. An effective alternative was needed—and quickly. Brown and Walsh and their integrated pest management (IPM) team recruited Jocelyn Millar at the University of California at Riverside to join them. Years earlier, he had isolated the clearwing moth’s sex pheromone that the team had used in its traps. The pheromone attracts and confuses male moths, thus disrupting their mating cycle. With only a limited supply of the synthetic pheromone available, and approval required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of a Regional Section 18 permit for use of an unregistered pesticide, only one-third of the poplar plantings was treated in 2003.
“We saw some tangible results, and we were able to refine the formulation and application for future years,” Brown said. “We obtained another Section 18 (permit) in 2004 to apply (the synthetic pheromone) to all the stands, which resulted in a significant reduction in clearwing moth damage.” In 2006, the EPA granted full approval for use of the new pesticide to control the western poplar clearwing moth. The success of the pheromone-based IPM strategy has meant that Lorsban has not been applied on Pacific Northwest hybrid poplar plantations since 2002. “That’s a 44,000-pound reduction in organophosphate use,” Brown said. “The synthetic pheromone is nontoxic, so workers can re-enter the forest only a few hours after application, and it takes as little as one gram per acre per year to be effective.” The project’s success resulted in the Entomological Society of America’s awarding to the Pacific Northwest Hybrid Poplar IPM Team both its regional and its national Dow AgroScience’s Integrated Pest Management Team awards.
Reducing Losses by Reducing Rots
Better Beef Is in the Genes
The old saying is true: One rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch. For the tree fruit industry, post-harvest rots in pome fruit (apples and pears) can result in losses of 50 to 60 percent in storage bins prior to packing, costing the industry millions of dollars annually.
Getting consistently good-tasting, juicy steaks at the supermarket may soon get a bit easier. That’s because scientists in Washington State University’s Department of Animal Sciences have identified genetic links to marbling and subcutaneous fat depth in beef cattle.
Thanks to the research of Washington State University associate plant pathologist Chang-Lin Xiao at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, the industry is well on its way to significantly reducing losses due to rots caused by fungal pathogens.
Marbling is the flecks of fat in muscle that contribute to flavor, tenderness, and juiciness.
Over the past five years, Xiao has discovered three new pathogens responsible for post-harvest rots in pome fruit in the United States. His reports on two of them were the first in the world and their causal agents have been described as new fungal species. They have been found to be responsible for as much as one-fifth of the losses resulting from postharvest decay in Red Delicious apples and one-third of the losses in d’Anjou pears in Washington state. “These pathogens colonize while the fruit is in the orchard and remain latent until post harvest,” according to Xiao. “We’ve found that with appropriate pre-harvest or postharvest fungicide treatments we can significantly reduce the post-harvest rot problem.” Xiao advocates better communication between orchardists and fruit packers to coordinate the different fungicide applications they use. “Pre-harvest treatment is effective, and by reducing the need for post-harvest treatment, it also helps to avoid these pathogens developing resistance to post-harvest fungicides,” Xiao said. Xiao’s research is also pursuing more effective treatments for two other common post-harvest diseases, gray mold and blue mold, which infect punctures and bruises on the fruit. He advocates keeping orchards clean of decayed fruit and organic debris to reduce the presence of the pathogens, good harvest management to avoid punctures and bruises on the fruit skin during harvest, and appropriate fungicide treatment for each. “The goal of my research is to develop an integrated approach to pre- and post-harvest treatments to control pathogens,” Xiao said. “We are working to reduce losses that result from multiple diseases, not just one.”
Using a Wagyu X Limousin crossbred reference population, WSU animal sciences Assistant Professor Zhihua Jiang and his teams of researchers have identified three genes and two Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism markers that have a significant association with beef marbling. These findings have been confirmed by one of the world’s leading animal health companies. If the genes and markers can be broadly applied across beef breeds raised in the United States, the research could speed and increase the accuracy of genetic selection. Beef producers should benefit as well as consumers because greater marbling translates into higher beef grades and higher returns. How much higher? “If you had a herd of 100 cows, and you bred half to a bull with the gene and the other half to a bull without the gene,” said Jan Busboom, WSU Extension meats specialist, “and let’s say that the gene increases your yield of choice beef from 40 percent to 60 percent, the bull with the gene would produce about 30 choice and 20 select calves, and the other bull would produce the reverse. The price spread recently between choice and select was $20 per hundredweight of carcass. The increase in yield of choice beef would be worth about $1,500 to the producer in just one year.” The U.S. beef industry began its Carcass Merit Project about seven years ago to validate genes and markers for economically important carcass traits and customer satisfaction. “There’s no doubt that our research provides new markers to the project for validation to the beef industry for implementation of marker-assisted selection in beef improvement,” Jiang said. WSU has applied for several patents based on his findings.
[ Research Takes Wine-tasting Several Steps beyond Swirl-Sniff-Taste ] The appearance, aroma, flavor, and even the feel of the wine you drink is the focus of Carolyn Ross’ research. An assistant professor of food science at WSU, Ross combines sensory analysis with analytical chemistry techniques to identify and describe changes in the flavor and odor profiles of Washington wines. For example, she is currently working on a project to determine consumer perception of astringency in red wine. Astringency is that pucker in the mouth caused by some strong reds. Wine drinkers often describe an astringent wine as “tannic” or “grippy.”
In early 2007, she will assemble a panel with approximately 100 wine drinkers to taste-test Washington reds, including Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and Merlots grown in the state. They will evaluate the wine based on astringency, taste, and their enjoyment of it, and will also answer questions about what they’d be willing to pay for each wine. “It is important to the industry to explore whether people want to buy an astringent red wine and how much they are willing to pay for it,” Ross says. “This will help us start to determine the properties of wines that consumers find desirable in red wine, and this knowledge may impact the wine industry in producing such wines.”
“It is a very important quality of red wine and one that definitely impacts people’s enjoyment of it,” Ross says. She is conducting an inventory of several hundred Washington red wines to develop an astringency profile for each one using chemical and sensory methodologies.
In another project, Ross is researching possibilities for new agents to help clarify, or fine, white wine. “Fining agents make the wine nice and clear, but they also can reduce the compounds that contribute to taste and smell,” she says. Today, Washington winemakers use substances like bentonite and egg white as fining agents, but, Ross says, foreign importers are becoming more particular about products containing animal proteins. Her study is looking at the fining qualities of plant proteins, such as wheat glutens. “That would be great for the state if wheat glutens are as effective as a fining agent as the ones winemakers are using,” she said.
[ Bettering Breast Milk and Battering Breast Cancer by Nutrition ] Not all trans-fatty acids are nutritional villains. Shelley McGuire, WSU associate professor and nutritional scientist, is studying the breast cancer-preventing benefits of a specific natural trans-fatty acid—conjugated linoleic acid or CLA—found primarily in cow’s milk and beef products. In the late 1980s, scientists found that CLA inhibited cancer cell growth in animals, especially in mammary tissue. Further studies indicated it also helped promote weight loss, leading to development of a synthetic version that today is marketed commercially. Interestingly, studies showed that increasing levels of this synthetic CLA in the diets of dairy cattle lowered the fat content of their milk. Based on these studies, McGuire and her students are researching the role of natural and synthetic CLA on the human breast and the milk produced during lactation. First, the McGuire group discovered that CLA is a component of human milk in concentrations equal to those in cow’s milk.
“Given its anti-carcinogenic properties, we began to wonder if we might be able to lower breast cancer in lactating women by advising them to eat diets high in naturally occurring CLA or consuming supplemental CLA. And, if so, what would be the long-term outcomes in
terms of maternal and infant health?” McGuire said. “While a woman is lactating, nearly every dietary fat introduced into her body is actively drawn to the breast for inclusion in the milk she produces. That might make it a perfect time to emphasize healthy fats such as CLA to bathe the breast tissue in their health-promoting benefits.” Another question her research group is examining deals with the effects of taking CLA supplements to lose weight while breast feeding. And what about the influence of synthetic CLA on milk fat content? “More than 60 percent of a nursing baby’s calories come from milk fat, so understanding what regulates milk fat content in human milk is critical to understanding normal infant nutrition,” McGuire said. “My long-term research goal is to better understand how day-to-day dietary choices influence the health of both the mother and her baby in terms of milk quality, infant nutrition, and risk of disease such as mastitis and breast cancer.”
[ Weighing the Risks and Benefits of Wildfire Mitigation ] To burn or not to burn? That is one question that Jonathan Yoder, an associate professor in the WSU School of Economic Sciences, is examining in his research concerning the economic risks of wildfire mitigation. Yoder’s research specifically focuses on the difficult economic tradeoffs and institutional barriers that must be confronted for a balanced approach to forest management and wildfire risk mitigation. Since the Great North Idaho wildfires of 1910, wildfire policy in the United States has focused primarily on suppression of wildfires once they have ignited. But, according to Yoder, it is becoming increasingly clear that a narrow emphasis on suppression has its weaknesses. First, he explained, much can be done to reduce risk before a wildfire ignites, such as reducing fuel for fires by clearing vegetation, especially around buildings and other highly valued properties. Second, excluding all wildfire from an ecosystem can erode its health and ironically may lead to more intense and destructive wildfires in the future. In some circumstances, prescribed fire may be one useful tool for managing wildfire danger and the overall structure of ecological systems. “We are trading two different risks,” he explained. “It is true that prescribed fires do escape and cause damage. That is one risk. But what are the risks associated with not performing prescribed burning? Not managing vegetation growth can lead to even more damaging wildfires.” Yoder said current incentives for mitigating the risks of wildfire before they happen are too weak from an economic perspective. “There are three main reasons those incentives are weak,” he said.
“First, most homeowner insurance covers damage caused by wildfires, so individual property owners have less incentive to invest in precautions against wildfire. Second, wildfires do not abide by property boundaries. Benefits from one landowner’s risk-reduction efforts often spill over to neighboring properties, but the full cost of risk management is usually borne by the landowner alone. Many landowners might then be less willing to invest adequately in wildfire precaution than if they were to get all of the benefits,” Yoder said. Finally, Yoder cites public agency firefighting as another reason for weak incentives to reduce wildfire risk. “There are good reasons for publicly funded firefighting, but it substantially reduces the individual financial risk to the landowner, which in turn weakens the incentive for that person to invest in preventing or mitigating wildfire.” Yoder’s research examines the effectiveness of two approaches to improve individual landowner risk mitigation. “One way to strengthen the economic incentives is to provide subsidies for vegetation reduction,” he said. “In that case, there are ways to help landowners clear defensible space around their homes, which helps balance the costs with the benefits.” “Secondly, insurance companies are beginning to recognize that property owner incentives are too weak. In states such as Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, some insurance companies are now requiring policy owners to meet certain risk mitigation standards.” Yoder said the two approaches support each other and would “most likely lead to much more successful resource management.”
Preschool Behavior May Be Precursor to Adolescent Aggression
It may be possible to identify children who will have aggression problems earlier and to prevent that behavior from becoming reality, thanks to ongoing research by WSU Human Development Professor Nicole Werner. Werner is among the first in the country to study relational aggression among preschool children. “Relational aggression” is defined as manipulating individual or group relationships as a way to hurt peers. “Children as young as age three use relational aggression,” Werner said. “The classic examples are when a child says, ‘You can’t come to my birthday party,’ or the preschooler version of the silent treatment (covering one’s ears to shut someone out). Even at that age, they have gotten the picture that they can use relationships to get what they want or to express anger.” Much of Werner’s work examines the origins of that understanding. Focusing on the parents—primarily mothers—of preschool children, Werner has looked at the differences in how parents say they would respond to relational aggression versus physical aggression, for example, excluding a disliked peer versus kicking that peer in the shin. “There is less variation in how most parents respond to physical aggression,” she said. “One hundred percent of mothers in one of my studies said they would do something in response to their child’s physical aggression, but only about 50 percent would intervene in a case of relational aggression.” The consequences of that are not surprising, Werner added. “Mothers who said they would be less willing to intervene in cases of relational aggression had children who were more relationally aggressive and less pro-social, helping, caring, etc., according to preschool teachers.” The benefits of being able to detect relational aggression at an earlier age are very real, Werner said. “It is very possible that this is a behavioral predictor of children who will have problems down the road. This might give us a way to identify, intervene, and prevent those problems early in development, especially among girls. We haven’t had any early- to mid-childhood risk factor that has proven to be very viable up to this point.” The next phase of Werner’s work involves actual observation of mothers and preschoolers interacting while stories depicting children in conflict are being told.
Organic Strawberries May Pack Additional Nutritional Punch
Are organic fruits really better for you? Preliminary results of research at Washington State University are showing that organically grown strawberries may contain more antioxidants than conventionally grown strawberries. Antioxidants may help reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases. John Reganold, Regents professor of soil science, and Preston Andrews, associate professor of horticulture, are analyzing the results from a two-year study of organic and conventionally grown strawberries raised side-by-side in farm fields in California. “I try to do most of my research on commercial farms to better represent farming systems research,” Reganold said. The researchers initially wanted to do research on blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, or raspberries grown in Washington. “We couldn’t find enough side-byside organic and conventional farms growing the same variety on the same soils,” Reganold said. “Everything has to be exactly the same except management.” Strawberries were harvested in the spring, summer, and fall in 2004 and 2005 in 13 conventional and 13 organic fields. Soils were tested three times as well, to see if there were differences. “You often hear backyard gardeners and organic farmers say they have better strawberries because they take care of the soil,” Reganold said. “You feed the soil; the soils feed the plant. It kind of makes sense.” “If there are differences in soil quality, are there specific parameters in the soil, like organic matter or the amount of nitrogen, that are directly related to better qualities in strawberries?” The scientists are still correlating those findings, but other results are becoming clear.
“We are finding that organic strawberries are smaller,” Reganold said, “and that is what we found with our apples in Yakima. They are significantly smaller, but that does not mean they have less taste.” In a study published in the science journal Nature in 2001, Reganold, Andrews, Jerry Glover, a former graduate student, and Herb Hinman, a WSU Extension economist, compared the economic and environmental sustainability of conventional, organic, and integrated apple production systems. The six-year study found that organic apples were generally firmer and slightly sweeter and that they fared better in blind taste tests. “In the second phase of the apple study, consumer taste panels found that organic Galas were tarter, firmer, had better texture, and were more acceptable overall,” Reganold said. “Organic apples also had higher antioxidant activity. That’s what we are finding with the strawberries.” Reganold said the focus of the strawberry research is more on nutrition than the apple research primarily because it is of intense public interest. “The frontier of comparing organic with conventional is the nutrition part,” he said. He feels the new research both complements and supplements the earlier work. “The strawberry study is the perfect follow-up to the apple study because the next step in this kind of research is nutritional measurements.” The strawberry study was funded by a $120,000 grant from The Organic Center.
[ Growing Vitamins for Better Human, Environmental Health ]
It may be more economically and environmentally friendly to grow folate than it is to manufacture the water-soluble B vitamin linked with prevention of birth defects and heart disease, according to WSU researcher Sanja Roje. Supported by the National Science Foundation, Roje is working to understand—at the genetic level—how plants produce and use folate. “Once we understand that,” said Roje, an assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Biochemistry, “we can manipulate the genetic material to help plants produce more.” Most plants do produce folate, but not in significant enough amounts to be practical for use as a source of the vitamin by humans and other animals. Consequently, a synthetic form of folate (folic acid) is manufactured for supplements and in fortified foods. The synthesis process is less than environmentally friendly, however.
“Currently, we have to chemically synthesize folic acid in a process that produces a large amount of toxic waste,” Roje said. “If we can develop plants that provide enough of the vitamin without synthesizing it, it would eliminate some of the production costs as well as the environmental costs.” A lack of folate in the diet has been linked to cardiovascular diseases, birth defects, and cancer. In 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began to require the addition of folic acid to enriched breads, cereals, flours, corn meals, pastas, rice, and other grain products. A decade later, studies show that the number of children born with birth defects and the incidence of cardiovascular disease in the nation have dropped, Roje said. “Making folate more readily available is good for human health and good for the environment,” she said.
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