How Mice Contribute to Wheat Flavors with Alecia Kiszonas

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Contact Information:

For questions or comments, contact Alecia via email at alecia.kiszonas@ars.usda.gov or by phone at (509) 335-4062.


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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. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast, do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. And leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Alecia Kiszonas. Alecia is a research biologist for the USDA-ARS Western Wheat Quality Lab in Pullman. She received two Bachelors Degrees — one in Chemistry and one in Biology from Ripon College in Wisconsin. Her Master’s Degree is in Crop Production and Physiology from Iowa State University. And her Ph.D. is in Crop Science from Washington State University. She has been in her current position for five years or so. Hello Alecia.

Alecia Kiszonas: Hi Drew.

Drew Lyon: So tell us what you’re doing over at the Western Wheat Quality lab these days.

Alecia Kiszonas: Among other things I work on the flavor of wheat, which is something that is not heavily studied. We want to increase whole grain consumption and one barrier to whole grain consumption is a bitter flavor or a strong flavor that some people who have been eating, for example, white bread all their lives don’t really find particularly tasty. So in order to hopefully increase whole grain consumption we want to make wheat that tastes really good.

Drew Lyon: Okay, you are right I haven’t heard of wheat taste tests before. So you have a little panel sitting around all tasting wheat? Is that how it’s done or?

Alecia Kiszonas: It actually started with mice.

Drew Lyon: With mice?

Alecia Kiszonas: Yes. Mice seem to be able to tell the difference in flavor but don’t bring a lot of sort of preconceived notions to it like we would. Like, any emotional attachment. Maybe this seems healthier or this smells like bread my grandmother used to make, things like that, so mice are perfect subjects and it turns out they have some similar taste bud structures to humans so it seems like they’re a pretty good model organism.

Drew Lyon: Okay, well that’s very unique I would say, I have not heard. So you use mice and how do you tell whether they prefer or don’t prefer a particular wheat that you’re feeding them?

Alecia Kiszonas: Well that was actually a challenge to start with, to sort of figure out what the preferences of mice were to begin with. Not surprisingly they greatly prefer soft wheat over hard wheat. And white wheat over red wheat, although there are some notable exceptions to that that we found. So what we do is we mark the grain with, each grain with a dot of a Sharpie Marker and it turns out, and we’ve done studies on this — the mice either like or dislike red and black marks the same. So we’ve done quite a few studies on how to mark the grain. And once we had that sort of settled we worked on sort of finding genetic differences. So within a market class of wheat we will give samples, they’ll get to try them for 24 hours just to get a feel for the grain and then we take everything away. We give a measured amount of two samples, or two varieties, they get 24 hours to eat what they want to. At the end of that the grain is then collected and what hasn’t been eaten is weighed back to compare to the original amount that was given to the mice.

Drew Lyon: I’m finding this fascinating because I never would have thought we’d be talking mice and wheat flavor. So how did you come on to this idea of using mice to test for flavor and wheat?

Alecia Kiszonas: I would love to take credit for this idea. That was actually Dr. Craig Morris, the Director of our lab.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Alecia Kiszonas: And he was just starting this work and I’m not sure if it was some observations that he made but at one point he did have a little pet mouse [Drew chuckles] and watched this mouse for, like hours just seeing how it behaved with the grain and maybe picked it up and played with it. So he kind of started this project and that was one thing that drew me to the lab was I found this to be really innovative and fascinating research that was sort of outside the box and I really wanted to come be a part of that. So, you know, he kind of started it along with another researcher Pat Fuerst. And I took over on the mouse project probably five years ago or so. So we’ve done a lot of work since then, particularly connecting flavor to the genetics behind it.

Drew Lyon: When I was in Nebraska, one of my projects was to try to increase the amount of hard white wheat grown. And the idea was hard white wheat doesn’t have that red aleurone, which has the bittern tannins in it and so the idea that would people would eat more whole grain if it was white wheat, but you’re telling me it’s not quite that simple as red versus white?

Alecia Kiszonas: Right, we thought it was until we had done studies maybe two years ago where we saw that there were some exceptionally tasty red, hard red varieties that the mice preferred over some, I guess, very yucky tasting hard white varieties. So what we thought was a more black and white system turned out to be a little bit of a gray area.

Drew Lyon: So how are you using the information you collect on the mice to move forward with moving that wheat flavor into I guess the breeding program? And can you tell us a little bit about that?

Alecia Kiszonas: Sure. So we did some genetic mapping populations within soft white wheat to make sure we didn’t have any color differences or hard and soft differences. And found some of genetic hotspots, is how we like to refer to that, that really had strong associations with flavor and we are now taking those tests, the very extreme varieties, also in collaboration with Colorado State University and some of their metabolomics and breeding work, and we got a project with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They have a genetics of taste lab that I understand is an NIH funded lab and part of their grant is they call for proposals for collaboration. So we answer that and our proposal was selected. And it’s a very interesting program they have with a lot of community involvement. So there are these citizen scientists and community members really make a lot of the decisions about what gets studied there.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Alecia Kiszonas: So we’re working with them now and making wafers that are maybe one-inch in diameter and very, very thin of just ground wheat and water and sheeted out and then cut into these little wafers and they’re very reminiscent of uncooked pasta.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Alecia Kiszonas: I mean I would never sell these. [Drew chuckles] They’re not something that would make any money.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Alecia Kiszonas: But we wanted to use the least amount of processing possible to avoid any confounding effects because we know different varieties behave differently when baked or processed further. So these are — you can taste the difference and they do sensory panels there. And people need to pair the ones that they think are the same. They’re given two sets of material and we want them to pair like with like. And we’re not really asking, “Did you like this? Or did you think it was bitter?” Our aim is more, “Can humans detect differences in the way that we see mice can detect these differences?”

Drew Lyon: Okay, and how long has that project been going on with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science?

Alecia Kiszonas: We just had our kickoff brunch about a month ago and that was to start training the citizen scientists who actually administer this. So it’s community members who can get trained. And a lot of them have a science background. And they can get trained to administer these sensory panels. And so we had this big start launch to the project and everything is open source for it because it’s really, like very community based. And the project has it’s official kickoff for the public on November 19th. And they get people going through the museum and it takes maybe 15, 20 minutes. They have people volunteer who are from ages like eight to 80, 90, you know, anyone who does not have celiac or another gluten intolerance is perfectly welcome do the sensory panel.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so and that will run for a certain length of time and then will the result be made available to people?

Alecia Kiszonas: Yes, it will run for probably almost a year.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Alecia Kiszonas: And they get particularly around Thanksgiving or winter holiday breaks they get a lot of people coming to the museum to do this. So it’s sort of participation goes in waves but they get between 1,500 to 2,000 participants over the nine months to a year and then we have it kind of outlined that it will be a few months of analyzing data. And what they do is they’re interested in the human genetics side of this. So they’ll be taking a little cheek swab from participants and looking at some specific genetic markers to see if certain people have receptors that might be more sensitive to this taste and so we’ll be combining those data with what we see from the wheat genetics side of it to try to understand are there differences and do children have a stronger sensitivity to this or people who eat a lot of whole grains might not be able to tell differences because they just like all of those flavors. So I think there are going to be a lot of interesting things, which means it’s going to be a lot of analysis and then we’re hoping to have several publications that will all be open source for hopefully, you know, launching into further projects about now we need to bake them because mostly we eat things that have been heated in some way.

Drew Lyon: Right, yeah. So you expect this stuff to start happening here over the next year or two. And is there some place our listeners can go to, maybe not immediately but down the road to see how this is turning out while you — is there a website or somewhere they can go?

Alecia Kiszonas: Yes, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a link on their website to the Genetics of Taste Lab and they have a lot of resources there and information about the project we’re currently working on as well as some of their previous studies, which are very interesting and they’ve done a really nice job there, which is why we’re very happy to be partnering with them is that they really have a great system set up for these sort of sensory panels and just large numbers of participants, which is generally a challenge in these taste testing kinds of studies. So it will hopefully show the progress on the website and I’m not sure how much it will be publishable at first, but in the first two weeks they have all of the museum staff and volunteers actually participate. So they’ll be sending me some preliminary data. So hopefully in maybe two months or so I’ll at least have some preliminary findings.

Drew Lyon: Will that be posted to the Western Wheat Quality website?

Alecia Kiszonas: I think it will be on the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Drew Lyon: On the Denver, okay.

Alecia Kiszonas: Just sort of USDA has some different regulations about that and they have a great media team for this there. They do a lot of advertising and they are active on social media for this, so they’ve got a really nice setup.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Sounds like a really nice collaboration. You’re both getting something out of this and they’re helping out get the word out and really fascinating work. I’m really excited to see how this turns out over time and that’s an area I just — never crossed my mind that we’d be feeding mice different kinds of wheat and that that information would be translatable to humans.

Alecia Kiszonas: Yeah, it’s taken about seven or eight years to get to the point where we have an understanding of this flavor enough such that we can bring it to humans, which is really the important part. So we’re very excited to be in this next phase of this research because it really is, you know, this is all been geared toward human whole grain consumption. So this has been a really major step for us to be able to bring this to humans and with a very a good collaboration that has a lot of strong foundation on both sides.

Drew Lyon: Very good, well I find it fascinating. We’ll have to have you back on as a guest when you have a little bit information on what you’re finding here. Thank you very much Alecia.

Alecia Kiszonas: Thank you.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. If you like what you hear, you can subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. And leave us a review while you’re there. If you have questions for us that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon@wsu.edu. You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu. You can also reach out on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. 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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