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Drew Lyon: This episode of the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast was recorded on March 22, 2019 during the WSU Plant Science Symposium. The theme of the symposium was Foundations for the Future: Embracing New Agricultural Technologies. As part of the program, five innovative researchers from across the U.S. and the world agreed to speak about their research. All five researchers also agreed to sit down with me for a few minutes to explain their work and how it may relate to wheat growers in Eastern Washington.
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Drew Lyon: Welcome back to our special series from the 2019 WSU Plant Science Symposium. My guest today is Joyce Van Eck. Joyce is an associate professor and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at the Boyce Thompson Institute. She is a leader in the development of biotechnological approaches for the study of gene function as it relates to crop improvement and fast-tracking domestication to transform underutilized species into viable sources to diversify and strengthen our food supply. She uses several model plant species for her work in addition to applying genetic engineering strategies and genomic editing to food crops including grape, millets, physalis, potato, and tomato. She has been involved in teaching and development of outreach activities that have led to a leadership role in public engagement in science. Hello, Joyce.
Joyce Van Eck: Hi, Drew.
Drew Lyon: So how did you get started in gene editing?
Joyce Van Eck: Well, my collaborators and I, Zach Lippman at Cold Spring Harbor Lab and Mike Schatz at Johns Hopkins University, we were looking at the genetics of plant growth habit and fruit characteristics in tomato, and one of the ways to do that is to knock out a gene that’s associated, say, with plant growth habit. And the new technology gene editing is very specific for knocking out genes. It’s almost like sending in a drone to target a gene. More specific than other genetic engineering methodologies. And it’s been a great tool for something called reverse genetics, again, where we’re knocking out that gene in order to see the effect on plant growth.
Drew Lyon: So I think a lot of our listeners are used to the idea of adding a gene that you want, but this is actually doing the opposite.
Joyce Van Eck: Exactly. It’s doing the opposite.
Drew Lyon: Oh, okay. So some of the things you’re working on include groundcherry and goldenberry. How did you get started with those two species?
Joyce Van Eck: Well, with our work with tomato, we were starting to see some really interesting changes, and it led us to the kind of concept that can gene editing be used to fast-track the improvement of plant species, or can it in a sense be used to fast-track domestication? So we wanted to take what we learned in tomato and apply it to something more distantly related within the same family as tomato. And when we were looking at — it’s called a phylogenetic tree, so like a family tree, we saw that groundcherry and goldenberry were more distantly related. So that would help us answer some of our fundamental research questions. But we also thought that there was some potential for those fruit to be specialty fruit crops in the U.S. So there underutilized for a number of reasons. They’ve got this really wild, unmanageable growth habit. And groundcherry drops its fruit to the ground, hence the name groundcherry.
Drew Lyon: Okay.
Joyce Van Eck: So that causes a real problem for farmers to be able to harvest this fruit. So we thought with some improvements we could maybe have farmers adopt this into agricultural production, and it could be a new source of fruit for people to diversify their diets.
Drew Lyon: Okay. So tell us a little bit how your work with these two species, how you’re translating that to farmers and homeowners.
Joyce Van Eck: So we — so part of what I wanted to do is I felt that we were doing this research and we were looking at improvement, but I didn’t want to just spring this on farmers and the consumers when we had these new improved lines. So I wanted to bring them in so we could get their feedback early on and what they felt the improvements were needed for them to adopt it.
Drew Lyon: Oh, okay.
Joyce Van Eck: So instead of waiting and thinking, oh, we know what they need, to really find out from them firsthand. And then also, the part with the home gardeners was to get consumers, to get people knowing what they are. Because I’m finding that a lot of people just have never heard of them, have never had them. And so I got funding from a local foundation in Ithaca, New York where we’re located. And we had 35 citizen scientists and 11 farmers throughout New York State who grew our material and then gave us feedback on what they felt was they liked or they didn’t like about it, whether that was plant growth habit or the flavor. And they really didn’t like the fact that the groundcherry dropped its fruit to the ground.
Drew Lyon: Okay. And so you’re working on trying to — they gave you this input, and now you’re trying to see what you can — how you can adapt these species for their use.
Joyce Van Eck: Right. So it’s really helping guide the improvement. And the other aspect of that was we had only grown this material in the greenhouse until then. So we hadn’t seen it out in the fields. And we got some really interesting information about insects and insect interactions. And also how it affected the flavor. How growing it outside in gardens the flavor was very different than what we were seeing in the greenhouse.
Drew Lyon: Okay. Biotechnology has kind of become a polarizing topic. There’s some people who just as soon as you say the word they think what you’re doing can’t be the right thing to do. But you’ve really developed a way of talking about biotechnology to people who aren’t scientists. What have you found to be the best way to discuss biotechnology with nonscientific audiences?
Joyce Van Eck: Yeah, you know, over the years I’ve really — I like to have the opportunity to meet with the general public to tell them what we do. I think scientists need a lot more of that. I think simply meeting a scientist, letting them know we’re real people and we have other interests outside of our work. So what I’ve done is I’ve — I’ve let people know that we have some real problems now. You know, it’s not that we’re looking at feeding more people in the future. We have citrus greening problems. And we have, you know, bananas in other countries, they’re being devastated by bacterial diseases. And I just feel that we need to use every tool we can of crop improvement, and then tell them about the tools and what we can do as plant breeding, genetic engineering, gene editing, genome sequencing, and really try to get them to have that connection with why we need this technology and the importance of using it.
Drew Lyon: Okay. So wheat in Eastern Washington is kind of the king crop. It kind of rules. How can some of this work you’re doing with groundcherry and goldenberry — do you see any relevance of this work that could be brought to bear or at least better understood by wheat farmers?
Joyce Van Eck: So part of this work is, you know, we start it with tomato and we’re taking baby steps. We’re looking at another plant species in the same family. But our intent is that people could follow this model outside of the, you know, the Solanaceae family, which is the name of the family that tomato and the groundcherry and goldenberry are part of. So we’re hoping that they seize, for instance, the plant architecture. Say if there are wild species of wheat that, you know, have other qualities except that they just really are unmanageable to grow or do they drop their seeds, and just kind of planting this idea that you could use something like gene editing to knock out that gene and make the improvement. Or maybe you couldn’t do that through breeding because maybe these traits are linked, and gene editing is a really good way to break that linkage for making your improvements.
Drew Lyon: Okay. I know diversifying our cropping system here would bring some real value, but it’s not always easy to find that perfect crop that will work. And I think quinoa and some of these other crops that are being tried around here, maybe this approach could help us turn those not yet wildly grown crops into something that would fit our management system and our harvest system and the whole picture better.
Joyce Van Eck: Yeah. And that’s what we’re hoping, that we really spark this idea of taking underutilized crop species and, you know, developing into something that could be grown realistically and in an agricultural production system.
Drew Lyon: Okay. If somebody wants to learn more about what you’re doing, where could they go to get that information?
Joyce Van Eck:They could search for the Boyce Thompson Institute — that’s B-o-y-c-e — and groundcherry, and they’ll pull up our project web page.
Drew Lyon: Okay. And from there they can learn about these different projects you’re doing?
Joyce Van Eck: They can. Because it’ll link into my web page as well.
Drew Lyon: Okay. Very good. Well, thank you very much for sharing this information with us. I enjoyed having you on the program today.
Joyce Van Eck: And thank you, Drew. I really enjoyed it, and I’m happy to, you know, have this opportunity to share what we’re doing.
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Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon That’s email@example.com (firstname.lastname@example.org). You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.