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Synthetic Wheat with Ph.D. Student Nikayla Strauss

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Episode Transcription:

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Hello, and welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Nikayla Strauss. Nikayla is a second-year Ph.D. student studying under Dr. Kim Campbell, the USDA-ARS club wheat breeder here in Pullman, and Dr. Arron Carter, the WSU winter wheat breeder. She is from Colorado, where she did her undergraduate degree at Colorado State University and worked for Dr. Scott Haley, who’s the CSU wheat breeder. Nikayla also did an internship at Syngenta, where she worked with hybrid wheat. Hello, Nikayla.

Nikayla Strauss: Hi.

Drew Lyon: So Nikayla, can you tell us what synthetic wheat is?

Nikayla Strauss: Yeah. Synthetic wheat is actually what I’m basing most of my Ph.D. off of, and it is basically just recreating the hybridization that created wheat. So wheat is actually three different grasses put together. And we are recreating mostly just the last hybridization event, so the last grass that made wheat what we know it today.

Drew Lyon: Okay. There’s a term for that. What do they call wheat? It’s a hexaploid?

Nikayla Strauss: It’s a hexaploid.

Drew Lyon: Okay. What is synthetic wheat used for, and why is there an interest in synthetic wheat and trying to recreate its background, I guess?

Nikayla Strauss: Yeah. The last hybridization that created wheat as we know it actually had a huge genetic bottleneck in it, so very few genes contributed to most modern wheat varieties. So we can, if we recreate that, we’re able to control the genetics that go into it, and then we can develop new varieties with more genetic diversity, more disease resistance, mostly better root systems, and things like that.

Drew Lyon: Okay, very good. I have often wondered what [laughs] the synthetic wheat was all about, and now I know. Very interesting. So do you think there’ll be a synthetic wheat variety in the future? Is there a practical application for it, or is it pretty much just something researchers play around with?

Nikayla Strauss: Actually, yeah. We want to make sure people know this. It’s mostly just a tool for researchers and breeders. And we create synthetic wheat using traditional breeding methods, but what growers are going to see is wheat varieties like they’ve always seen. There’s not going to be a synthetic wheat variety. We’re just going to cross with synthetic wheats to make better varieties.

Drew Lyon: Okay, to bring a new set of traits from some of these other species.

Nikayla Strauss: Yeah, so it’s just a tool for breeders, but it’ll lead to better varieties.

Drew Lyon: So how does it compare to, we’ve had some guests here talking, Michael Neff, Scot Hulbert talking about GMO and some other techniques. This is not a GMO. This is something different but still a tool for breeders to use.

Nikayla Strauss: Yeah. It’s, we use traditional methods. It does require a little more work than just crossing wheat- by-wheat because you are recreating a hybridization, which is a bit different, but it’s not classified as a GMO.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Very good. How is synthetic wheat going to impact the Pacific Northwest?

Nikayla Strauss: Well, what we’re really trying to look at is better disease resistance and better drought tolerance because most synthetic wheats tend to have better root systems, better water uptake, better performance under drought, and what I’m specifically looking at is disease resistance to soilborne diseases. So a lot to do with how the plant’s interacting with the soil.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so you’re in your second year. How far along are you in this process? Have you created the synthetic lines at this point, or are you still doing that?

Nikayla Strauss: Well, thankfully, I didn’t have to create the synthetic wheat. That’s a lot of work. Other breeders created it, and I’m evaluating the research populations that they made.

Drew Lyon: For these various traits that you’re interested in?

Nikayla Strauss: Yeah.

Drew Lyon: And when you’re all done, what’s the end product going to be, you hope?

Nikayla Strauss: Hopefully, varieties coming out of the WSU Wheat Breeding program or the USDA Club Wheat program that have been crossed with synthetics that I’ve worked with for improved traits like for drought and disease resistance.

Drew Lyon? Okay. So let’s assume that you’re going to be successful and you’re going to do everything a Ph.D. student is supposed to accomplish. What are your plans after this program?

Nikayla Strauss: Well, I’m pretty set on being a wheat breeder, and we’ll see where that ends up being, but I really feel pulled towards industry, mostly.

Drew Lyon: Tell us a little bit about that. Because up until recently, industry wasn’t all that interested in wheat, but they’ve become quite interested in the last few years. Has that opened a lot of doors in the wheat breeding world to go work in industry versus working for a university?

Nikayla Strauss: Yeah, I’m hoping so. That’s what I’ve seen so far. Everything I’ve heard has said that if I work on wheat in my Ph.D., there will be a job for me [laughs] when I graduate.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And do you hope to stay in the PNW?

Nikayla Strauss: Yeah. I really like it here, and I do hope to stay here.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, if somebody wants to go learn about the work you’re doing, is there a place they can go to find that information?

Nikayla Strauss: Yeah. They can go to the USDA club wheat breeding website. There won’t be anything about my research yet because it’s not published yet, but in the next couple of years, it will be.

Drew Lyon: So if our listeners want to see what you’ve accomplished in a year or two, they can go to that website and see. And for our listeners, we’ll put those websites in our show notes so they can go look at that and find the site. Thank you very much, Nikayla.

Nikayla Strauss: Thank you.

Drew Lyon: Thanks for listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you have questions for us, that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at You can find us online at You can also find us on social media on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. Subscribe to this show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon; we’ll see you next week.

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