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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.
My guest today is Dylan Oates. Dylan is a Ph.D. candidate affiliated with the Molecular Plant Sciences program and Crop and Soil Sciences Department. Dylan joined WSU in 2019 under the supervision of Dr. Karen Sanguinet where his research focuses on the identification of key cold response determinants in winter wheat. Specifically, he is studying the interaction between vernalization and photoperiod for low-temperature acclimation.
Along with his research, Dylan was a member of the Molecular Plant Sciences Graduate Student Organization, Crop and Soil Sciences Graduate Student Association, and WSU’s Graduate and Professional Student Association. Hello, Dylan.
Dylan Oates: Hi, Drew.
Drew Lyon: That’s a lot of associations.
Dylan Oates: Yes, it is.
Drew Lyon: That’s good that you’re involved. Not as many students are involved in those as they used to be, so it’s good to have you involved.
So, why did you decide to do research on winter wheat? The people in the plant molecular sciences group study all sorts of different things. Why winter wheat?
Dylan Oates: Yeah, that’s a great question, Drew.
Well, I grew up in a small farm town in Nebraska called Beatrice. Living in a place where, you know, everyone knew you or your family, I assisted a lot of farmers, family, or friends on their farms. However, seeing the amount and type of work that went into maintaining a farm or ranch was something that just wasn’t for me. Realizing how important agriculture was for my hometown led me to search for a different route in which I could give back to my community. This is why I’ve conducted research in major crops within the United States since college.
For example, while an undergrad at Nebraska Wesleyan University, I worked for the USDA-ARS researching sorghum or sorghum bicolor as a possible source of alternative bioenergy. This led me to continue my academic route to obtain my masters at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, focusing on leaf development in maize. And then furthering that, now I’m pursuing my doctorate at Washington State University conducting research on winter wheat.
Drew Lyon: Okay. That’s a diverse range of locations and different crops. So, this cold tolerance–why does winter wheat need to be cold or freeze tolerant?
Dylan Oates: Yeah, that’s a great question. Winter wheat is a winter annual that requires exposure to low temperatures to transition from a vegetative to reproductive growth so that the plant can reach maturity. Winter wheat germinates and then it establishes a vegetative seedling stage and then goes dormant during the winter months.
Once the right amount of daylight and temperature are present. The plant will perceive these environmental cues and start growing again. In order to survive and flower, winter wheat must be able to tolerate cold and freezing temperatures.
Drew Lyon: And we get some of those here in Washington state, don’t we?
Dylan Oates: Yes, we do.
Drew Lyon: So, why is understanding photoperiod response and freezing tolerance important for wheat breeders or farmers in the Pacific Northwest?
Dylan Oates: Yeah, this is a very important area of research for many agricultural crops due to climate change. From my understanding, the average temperatures are changing or deviating from the normal levels globally. So, what this means is that areas which are heavy in agriculture are dealing with plants getting exposed to temperatures that plants consider optimal for growing while still experiencing the same amount of light, but for shorter or longer periods of time.
So, for example, if a plant such as winter wheat requires a specific amount of light and temperature to grow appropriately, it ultimately begins undergoing delayed winter temperatures or winter occurring later in the year, or even short periods of warm temperatures–even if they’re receiving the same amount of light–can ultimately lead to yield loss or, unfortunately, can even be lethal for the plant.
So, focusing on this area of research will lead to a crop that is climate adaptive for scientists’, breeders’, and farmers’ needs. And finally, maintaining a crop that requires the same or less amount of input under changing conditions is a necessity.
Drew Lyon: Okay. So, I guess the idea being that if we’re warming up the world and warm temperatures are experienced earlier than the plant should be experiencing them, this photo period might slow that down or allow the plant maybe to actually go ahead and flower when normally it wouldn’t because the day’s too short.
Explain that a little more–how photoperiod works and works in this scenario.
Dylan Oates: Yeah. So, photoperiod is kind of the amount of daylight that the plant experiences or requires to kind of trigger certain processes for development. So, the reason why I’m looking at photoperiod and vernalization is it’s kind of an interaction between having the right amount of light and having the right amount of temperatures for the plant to grow.
And so, with winter wheat, one thing that we might experience and what I experienced in Nebraska is what I like to call “fool springs”, which is when you get maybe a week of warmer temperatures and then you get snow the next week. And so, if winter wheat experiences this week of warm temperatures and it tricks the plant into start growing again, well, if it gets hit with snow or ice or freezing temperatures again, it could prevent the plant from growing to maturity or even just killing them off.
Drew Lyon: And having this photoperiod kind of warns the plant it’s too early to start growing so you want to look at the two in combination?
Dylan Oates: Yes, correct.
Drew Lyon: Okay. Interesting. So, you were recently awarded a NIFA USDA-ARS pre-doctoral fellowship to work in winter wheat. Can you tell us a little bit about that project and the team both here at WSU and beyond?
Dylan Oates: Yes, this is very exciting for me. I was awarded this in May 2023, which this will continue for the next two years.
We are taking two approaches to this project. One is to identify QTLs that are responsible for cold tolerance and the other is to use a technique called RNA sequencing to identify genes that are up or down regulating in response to freezing temperatures. Ultimately, this project is large and is a team effort. So, I’m doing this project with a handful of collaborators that includes Drs. Karen Sanguinet, Kim [Garland-]Campbell, Arron Carter, Stephen Ficklin, Tyler Biggs, and Brian Bellinger.
Drew Lyon: Okay, so, for both myself and some of my listeners who might not know what a QTL is, what is a QTL?
Dylan Oates: Yes, that’s a great question. Quantitative trait locus or QTL analysis is a statistical method that links two types of information such as phenotypic data and genotypic data in order to explain the variation in complex traits.
So, in other words, it allows us to link certain phenotypic traits, for example, low temperature or height of the plant to specific regions of a chromosome in a genome.
Drew Lyon: Okay. And that allows you to breed for it?
Dylan Oates: Yes, it allows us to identify markers that are associated with these…
Drew Lyon: With that trait.
Dylan Oates: Yep.
Drew Lyon: Okay. Do you think your research will only shed light on cold response mechanisms in winter wheat or does it go beyond winter wheat?
Dylan Oates: So, my hope is that understanding how winter wheat requires the interaction photoperiod and vernalization to grow will also shed light on other abiotic or environmental stressors for crops, like heat or drought, for example. This is because the ways that a plant perceives environmental stresses are similar to an extent and can extend to hopefully different areas of research other than cold and freezing stress.
Drew Lyon: Okay. Where are you at in this research and how much longer is your program?
Dylan Oates: Hopefully two years.
Drew Lyon: Two more years to go?
Dylan Oates: Yeah. For the duration of this fellowship.
Drew Lyon: Okay, very good. Well, we’ll look forward to learning and seeing what you do. Is there someplace our listeners could go to learn about this work. Does Dr. Sanguinet have a website where she put some of this or do you?
Dylan Oates: She does. She does have a lab website which is found through WSU. I also have LinkedIn, but I will be giving a poster presentation at NAPB, which is National Association of Plant Biologists [Breeders]–I think, hopefully, don’t quote me on that–in July. So, through their website too, you’ll be able to see my abstract.
Drew Lyon: Okay. We’ll try and get those links and put them in the show notes so our listeners can go see some of that. Thank you very much for taking some time to visit with me about your work, Dylan.
Dylan Oates: Well, thank you for having me.
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 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.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.