Evaluating Grain Quality and Mitigating Economic Loss with Dr. Hauvermale and Dr. Thompson

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Hagberg-Perten Falling Number test
Falling numbers project
Washington Association of Wheat Growers Falling Number Update (Camille Steber)
USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
WSU Small Grains website
Steber Laboratory

Contact information:
For questions or comments, contact Dr. Amber Hauvermale at ahauvermale@wsu.edu or Dr. Alison Thompson at alison.thompson@usda.gov.

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Episode Transcription


Drew Lyon: Hello, 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. In each episode, I speak 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 podcast app and leave us a review so others can find the show too.


I have two guests today. My first guest, Dr. Amber Hauvermale, is a research assistant professor in the Department of Crop and Social Sciences at WSU with expertise in molecular biology, protein biochemistry, seed physiology, and hormone signaling. Prior to getting her Ph.D. at Washington State University, she worked in industry and has always been involved in projects occurring at the intersection between basic and applied research.

In her current role, Amber is focusing on the physiological mechanisms that contribute to low falling numbers in wheat. And she has been developing a new rapid immunoassay for low falling number detection. Hello, Amber.

Dr. Amber Hauvermale: Hey, Drew. It’s great to be here.

Drew Lyon: My second guest, Dr. Alison Thompson, is a research biologist with the USDA-ARS Wheat Health Genetics and Quality Unit, based in Pullman. With expertise in high throughput phenotyping and environmental impacts on cultivar performance. Prior to getting the position with the Wheat Health Unit, she worked with the USDA-ARS in Maricopa, Arizona, studying the impact of heat and drought on cotton fiber quality and yield.

Dr. Thompson will be focusing on environmental impacts contributing to low falling number in wheat and improving research methods that will assist breeders for cultivar development and other management strategies to mitigate risk. Hello, Alison.

Dr. Alison Thompson: Hello, Drew. Thank you for having me.

Drew Lyon: Great to have both of you on here today. Falling numbers is a topic we’ve talked about a number of times in the past, also with Camille Steber and Kim Garland-Campbell. But you’re taking a little different tack with it, I think, than maybe they have in their discussions. Amber, can you kind of give us–to get us started with a quick overview of what falling numbers is, why it’s important, and why we use the test?

Dr. Amber Hauvermale: Sure. So, the Hagberg-Perten Falling Numbers test was developed in the sixties and it was used as a way to detect the enzyme alpha-amylase in flour samples. And this test has been adopted by the global wheat industry for evaluating grain quality. So, samples with high alpha-amylase have a low falling number. And this is associated–low falling number is associated with poor end-use quality.

So, the wheat industry has set key falling number thresholds to minimize risks associated with poor end-use quality. And when I say poor end-use quality, what I’m primarily referring to are sticky noodles, sticky breads, and cakes that fall. And so, when growers don’t meet falling numbers thresholds, they receive monetary dockages associated with the price for their crop.

Drew Lyon: Okay, as calling it falling numbers–people always ask “falling numbers”? What does that have to do with a plunger falling through this, this slurry?

Dr. Amber Hauvermale: Right? Yeah. No, it–it actually literally is what we refer to as a gravy test. So, and it is evaluating basically the integrity of starch in a gravy mixture. So alpha-amylase is an enzyme that specifically chops up starch into smaller pieces. And so when you have very low levels of alpha-amylase that starch doesn’t get degraded and so you have a thicker gravy.

And when you have very high levels of alpha-amylase, you have starch that’s been chopped up into little bits and a very watery gravy. So when you drop a plunger through those samples, in samples that have high levels of alpha-amylase, you have a plunger that falls to the bottom of the sample very quickly. And in that time that it takes in seconds corresponds with the falling number.

So a sample that has a falling number of 60 seconds, for example, has a very low falling number. And just to put it into perspective with the wheat industry, the threshold for falling number is 300 seconds. So that is considered a sound sample.

Drew Lyon: Okay, very good. So I’m going to ask this next question of both of you, but I think I’ll start with you, Amber. How did you become involved in the falling numbers project?

Dr. Amber Hauvermale: So, I actually became involved in 2018. I had started hearing, though, about the impacts of low falling numbers regionally probably in 2016. I think that was one of the biggest events on record in the Pacific Northwest. And so, in 2018 I was recruited on to basically find a way to come up with an alternative test potentially for the falling numbers test.

And just–the reason for that is because and I’ll get into this a little bit more later perhaps, but the falling numbers test doesn’t really allow for quick evaluation in the field in real-time. And so given the increased frequency with low falling numbers events in the Pacific Northwest, breeders and researchers at Washington State wanted to come up with–with a new method for kind of mitigating some of the economic losses.

And so that’s–that’s how I got involved. I was recruited on to work on this alternative test.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And Alison, how did you come from cotton to wheat country?

Dr. Alison Thompson: So, I actually originally came from wheat country. I’m originally from Pendleton, Oregon, and I also got my degree here at Washington State University. So back in 2016, my family was–was hit hard by the falling numbers problem. I had heard about it, but there weren’t any opportunities really to come back to work on wheat. So recently when this falling numbers position was created and became available, I jumped at the opportunity to rejoin this team.

So, I got my degree with Kim Garland-Campbell. I know they’re an excellent team and was just very excited to come back and work on a problem that I know has really hit our stakeholders hard, including my own family. So, it was just a perfect opportunity.

Drew Lyon: Oh, neat, and welcome back to the Pacific Northwest. What’s your impression of the falling numbers problem and what are some of your ideas for addressing the challenges posed by this problem?

Dr. Alison Thompson: Well, it is a very challenging problem. That’s the first thing that I have learned. And it’s challenging for a lot of different reasons. Primarily, there are a lot of different causes to falling number—low falling number. And then the test itself that we use to measure falling number is not as reproducible as we would like it to be. It’s not as consistent as we would like it to be.

So those different factors just make it very hard to study and understand what’s going on. So, what I would like to do is study one of the major causes of low falling number–late maturity alpha-amylase. I know Dr. Steber has talked about it before, but I would like to work on it from the aspect of helping breeders create better cultivars that are resistant to late maturity alpha-amylase.

And how I would like to do that–this particular trait or phenotype is notoriously difficult to consistently induce in a controlled setting. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that is what they have found in the past. And so I really want to try and improve the methodology behind inducing late maturity alpha-amylase in a controlled setting so that our breeders can identify resistance and eventually get cultivars out to our growers so that they can use those lines in their practice.

The other thing that I would like to do is try and improve upon the falling numbers test itself, particularly in how samples are taken and handled leading up to the test. So there’s a lot of different ways that the samples are taken from a farmer’s field for testing, and if it’s not representative of their field, they can get docked unnecessarily. So I really want to make sure that they are getting a fair sample so that they are then getting their fair price at the end of the day.

Drew Lyon: It can be a big hit in some years if you don’t meet that standard.

Dr. Alison Thompson: Yes, it can.

Drew Lyon: Amber, you mentioned earlier that you’re working on an alternative approach to falling numbers. Can you explain what that test does and how it might address existing challenges with the test?

Dr. Amber Hauvermale: Sure. First, I’ll just start off by mentioning–kind of based off of what Alison just said–there are a lot of us working on this problem from a number of different perspectives. And one of the reasons why I am focusing on an alternative that uses immunotechnology is because it is a way to basically look specifically at a key target.

So, the way an immunoassay works is that it uses antibodies specific for a target in a sample. So in this case the antibodies would be to alpha-amylase. And the benefits of an immunoassay are that they are fast, they are very user friendly, they are reproducible, and–if onboarded with the right technology–can also be calibrated from year-to-year, location-to-location, and can be calibrated specifically to falling numbers and key falling number thresholds.

And what’s interesting is that about a decade ago there was an immunoassay on the market and at the time that it was released, it wasn’t widely adopted by the market and, you know, there are some–some reasoning behind that, I think. I think that it was marketed as being the replacement for a falling numbers test and what I think Alison and I have both learned along this process is that the falling numbers test does have a place in–in testing.

So nowadays what’s interesting about immunoassays though is that they’re ubiquitous. You know, a lot of us have probably ordered one through Amazon to do a health test at home. And so, I think as people become more familiar with different types of technology, there’s large–there’s likely large–there is likely to be larger adoption. So that’s–that’s the reason why.

And also some of the local benefits of a test like this is that it allows–it allows, you know, our researchers and breeders to test earlier in cultivar development where something like a falling numbers test you just don’t have enough sample–amount of sample or a numbers of samples to run. You can run tests rapidly. There isn’t a lot of economic input that has to be made–capital expense for these things– and they can also be used potentially in real-time, either at the elevators or at the receival stations, or can be used to evaluate by individual farmers in the field.

So there’s a lot of–of flexibility and nimbleness with a test like this that might help to mitigate economic losses.

Drew Lyon: Okay. That sounds interesting. Any projections on when this test might be available?

Dr. Amber Hauvermale: Yeah. So, we have recently partnered, in essence, with an industry stakeholder and we hope to see something in the market for preliminary beta testing probably within the next year.

Drew Lyon: Oh, exciting, cool. Keep your eyes out for that. For both of you, maybe starting with Alison, what information can growers and industry partners provide that will be most helpful in your research efforts?

Dr. Alison Thompson: So, I would really like to learn more about the growers interactions at the grain elevators, starting with at the beginning of harvest, all the way to the end. When do they get their test results? How is testing done for them once they pull up into the elevator? Just would really like to get their perspective on the problem itself as well.

You know, growers, they know their land, they know their environment. And I’m sure that they have some wonderful nuggets of information that could help us look at something maybe a little bit differently than we have before. You know, our job is to approach it from a very scientific standpoint. We’re researchers, but they’re out in their fields often. They observe a lot more than I think people realize, maybe even they themselves realize. So I think they have a lot to offer to help us help them with this problem.

And I would also really love to learn more about the–the elevators’ perspective of this problem firsthand. So when they have a truck that pulls in, you know, what are they looking for? What are some roadblocks that they have other than faster testing—we know that that is a problem? Mixing on accident occurs because they don’t have faster tests. So we know that’s a problem. But what other roadblocks do they have to try and help prevent unsound grain from getting into sound grain?

Drew Lyon: Okay. Amber?

Dr. Amber Hauvermale: So, Alison and I have actually talked a lot about this and that the information that growers and industry partners can provide is the long list that Alison just provided, as well as just contacting us to say we would really like to provide input and feedback about ways that we think that you can tackle some of the logistical challenges in the grain chain. Or we have a weather station on our property and we would be, you know, we would love to give you our weather data or we would love to tell you when we planted our crop or when the heading date was.

Additionally, some of the information that I’m seeking is–and there are questions related to Alison’s research on this as well–I have a survey that’s been created to identify people who would be interested in participating, both in answering questions on a survey that are specifically geared to providing information to our industry collaborator and our researchers regarding future paths for the falling numbers project, as well as, as, you know, information about how cultivars perform in their environment.

So we are really seeking grower and industry partners that would provide information and be willing to work with us in these efforts just to improve, you know, falling numbers in general.

Drew Lyon: Okay, well, we’ll make sure we put your contact information in our show notes so our listeners can contact you if–if they’d like to volunteer to help you out.

Important work. Sounds like some exciting things may be coming down the road pretty soon. Thank you both, Amber, Alison for joining me today.


Dr. Amber Hauvermale and Dr. Alison Thompson: Thanks, Drew.

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 podcast app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon — that’s lyon@wsu.edu — (drew.lyon@wsu.edu). 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.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.

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