By Seth Truscott
The clues were there, but Andrei Smertenko’s ideas on how to help plant cells resist drought were new and untried.
The Washington State University cell biologist needed a backer, someone to believe in him and turn idea into action that could one day transform wheat and feed a hungry world.
Smertenko found that support thanks to the late Orville A. Vogel, a famed, groundbreaking WSU wheat researcher, and the endowment that he created — a fund that helps scientists launch pioneering research that might otherwise never get off the ground.
Growing a ‘Green Revolution’
Before Orville Vogel, most commercial wheat grew on tall, stately stalks. Vogel, a USDA researcher at Pullman for 42 years, helped breed new, dwarf wheat plants that ploughed more energy into their heads of grain, boosting yields and feeding more people. For his work waging the battle against global hunger in what was called the “Green Revolution,” he won the National Medal of Science in 1976.
Vogel, who died at age 83 in 1991, spent years building an endowment at WSU for wheat research, going on the road to ask farmers to give back, matching their contributions, and giving the first $26,000 donation.
Created to spur basic and applied research into crop yields, the Orville A. Vogel Wheat Research Fund has become an important nursery for new ideas. Offering three-year, $150,000 grants, the fund helps WSU researchers build new collaborations and fill knowledge gaps that solve major challenges facing Pacific Northwest wheat growers.
It also helps scientists produce new data that boosts their competitiveness for grants, creating a snowball effect of growing resources.
In 2019, the WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences will launch a new round of research projects powered by the fund. Scientists who have benefited from the fund say it has been an essential part of launching their research.
“Dr. Vogel’s research transformed the wheat industry, and the fund that he created continues to do that,” said Scot Hulbert, CAHNRS Interim Associate Dean for Research. “The recipients of this fund are pushing his revolution forward. Their success underscores the great importance of donations like Orville’s in putting new ideas to work.”
Wheat for a changing world
In fields and greenhouses in eastern Washington, Karen Sanguinet and a team of researchers and students are sampling, growing and testing heritage wheats from around the world and modern Pacific Northwest strains, studying the genes and proteins that let some plants survive drought that would cripple most varieties.
Sanguinet’s work involves a hunt for a specific family of proteins involved in stress tolerance. Most plants have four of these genes, but wheat has 20 that encode at least 24 different protein forms. She needs to know which of these genes is important.
“This is exploratory work,” Sanguinet said. “But ultimately, these genetic markers can be used in a breeder’s toolbox to develop varieties that can survive harsh conditions, ultimately helping feed more people in a changing climate.”
For WSU Crop and Soils scientist Sanguinet, the Vogel Fund made all the difference.
“As a new principal investigator, it really enabled me to establish my program,” she said. “We’re where we are at today, getting ready to publish three academic papers and branch beyond genomics into multi-level omics”—the study of an organism’s genes, proteins, phenotypes and ionic balance to gain a complete picture of life processes—”thanks to this support.”
Speeding student research on devastating disease
“The Vogel Fund has really accelerated our research,” said Xianming Chen. A USDA plant pathologist and adjunct professor at WSU, Chen combats stripe rust, a devastating fungal disease of wheat that costs growers millions of dollars annually.
Chen and his team map the genes that help plants resist rust, ultimately helping breed rust-fighting wheat that’s more profitable and sustainable.
Vogel funding lets Chen offer work and research opportunities to graduate and undergraduate students in his lab. In particular, it supported doctoral graduate Lu Liu’s research into how genes in important Pacific Northwest wheat cultivars can offer long-term protection against the disease.
“Dr. Liu came to WSU on a scholarship that really couldn’t cover all the costs of being a graduate student. The Vogel fund paid for her costs, supplies, and a fifth year in school. Without it, she wouldn’t have completed her doctorate and be making research strides that help us find new tools in the battle against stripe rust.”
Breaking new ground at the cellular level
Step by step and century by century, humans have been relentlessly selecting for better, stronger wheat varieties.
“From wild ancestors, we’ve developed robust, drought-tolerant varieties,” says Smertenko, a biologist in WSU’s Molecular Plant Sciences program. “But it’s an arms race. The climate is changing and becoming unpredictable. We need to find out how we can make wheat even more drought-tolerant.”
Smertenko studies the molecules and reactions that happen in plant cells when they respond to drought. He is building a bigger picture on how different markers and molecules come together to make cells stronger under stress, ultimately helping plants survive in drought.
Smertenko had a novel hypothesis on how these molecules function, but needed support to test it.
“The Vogel Fund trusted my hypothesis and invested in my ideas,” Smertenko said. “It let me build a team and generate data that showed strong support for my original hypothesis.”
Those findings led to new grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, BioAg (administered through WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources) and the Civil Research and Development Fund, boosting Smertenko’s ability to deliver useful discoveries.
“The Vogel Fund allowed me to do everything,” said Smertenko, who is reapplying this fall for the grant. “It lets you go in new directions and gain support as you grow. People begin to see that new ideas can work.”