Contact information: Dr. Arron Carter, firstname.lastname@example.org
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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.
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My guest today is Dr. Arron Carter. Arron is a professor and the Orville Vogel Endowed Chair of Winter Wheat Breeding and Genetics at WSU. His breeding program focuses on the development of high-yielding, high-quality wheat varieties with resistance to both biotic and abiotic stresses in Washington production regions. He uses a combination of traditional breeding methods, along with new technologies such as genomic selection and high throughput phenotyping to accomplish this.
Arron also teaches undergraduate courses in plant breeding and plant science. Hello, Arron.
Dr. Arron Carter: Hi, Drew. Thanks for having me today.
Drew Lyon: Thanks for coming on. It’s been a while, we’ve just figured out, so it’s good to have you on.
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, it’s good to be back. I always enjoy it. My grad students have been giving some updates the past few years, so I thought it was time I got back.
Drew Lyon: Well, we’re glad to have you.
So, your winter wheat research program received just over $561,000 in funding from the Washington Grain Commission in the current fiscal year. What do these funds allow you to do that just wouldn’t happen if you didn’t have that kind of funding support?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, there are a lot of different things that we do with the funding. One thing that we do is we make sure we’re able to genotype all [of] our varieties so that we can perform genomic selection on that. So, you know, that takes a person and resources to be able to genotype that many lines and analyze them every year.
And then a lot of it’s just the logistics of our state. As you know, we’re very diverse east to west and north to south, and this allows us to be able to put research plots in each of those environments. You know, we get all the way up to Douglas County with our snow mold plots. We’re down in in Walla Walla and everywhere in between. So, just because of the diversity of the state that way through the climate and the number of diseases that we’re looking at, it really allows us to get that testing in the field at all those different locations. That just means undergraduates to help us maintain all the plots, research personnel that travel there [and] do the planting.
So really a lot of that funding goes to the people because we’re in those multiple locations–we just need the people to go help manage those.
Drew Lyon: Okay. You mentioned genotyping. What does genotyping all of these things allow you to do that you wouldn’t be able to do without it?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, genotyping allows us to do future predictions. We can look at past performance–and the analogy I always use is like football, if you think about football. So, we go in and we can look at the genetics in this football analogy–the genetics of all of our NFL players, the all-star team, the MVP–so, we look at those genetics and we run an analysis that helps us understand what, based on their genetics, makes them excellent football players.
And then we go to the high school level and we genotype all the high school players and based on their genotype and what we know about future NFL players, we can say “based on your genotype, you’re predicted to have good performance or you’re predicted to have poor performance,” moving those that are predicted to have good performance on.
And so, we do the same with the wheat varieties. All the wheat varieties that have been successful, we know the genetics that helps make them successful. So, we look for that in our first-year trials and then, you know, it helps us more efficiently advance lines that have a better prediction to do better.
Drew Lyon: Okay. I hope we haven’t just instructed parents of teenagers to go out and have their kids genotyped here, but it’s a good analogy.
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, it’s a good analogy because people understand it, but that’s why we work with plants, too, because we’re able to do this with a lot of the ethical considerations that, you know, we would never do this on humans, right?
Drew Lyon: So, it just allows you to move through a lot more material more quickly, having the genotype?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, with extra information. So, if I have 3,000 lines that are my first year in the field and they do really well in 2022, well that was a long, cold season and so I can pick what does well in that current season but I don’t know how it’ll do yet in a hot, dry season or a hot, short season–you know, whatever other variation might come.
So, it kind of gives me that extra data point. I know how it did in season that year, but then also gives me this prediction value that says how well would it do in all of these other environments that we know about and the genetics. Does that make sense? So, we can kind of do them both because there’s sometimes we have lines that do spectacular in one year, and I get really excited about it, and then I grow it the next year [and] it’s average, and the next year average. It just really did good in that one year. So, I’ve used all these resources to carry along these lines. They did great in that one year, but really don’t have the genetic backing to perform well across multiple years [and] multiple environments.
And so, this allows us to look at that prediction and say, “Oh, you did great this year and you’ve got the genetics, let’s advance you. Or, you did poor this year and you’ve got bad genetics, we’re going to throw you away.” So, it helps us advance lines with more confidence than just that one field season that we typically get that first year.
Drew Lyon: Okay. So genotyping is one tool, let’s say. What other exciting new tools are you using in your breeding program?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah. So, we’ve also used a lot of the high-throughput phenotyping, which we’ve talked about before. I think my grad students, anyway, have talked about this. They’ve been researching this a lot with me. Basically, it’s going on the same theory of prediction but instead of using the genomics and the genetics of the line, we’re using what we can see on that high-throughput phenotyping.
And again, it’s to try and cover this diversity of climates that we have in the environment, but then also just from year to year, right? 2020 was our best year, and then all of a sudden we went to 2021, which was our worst year, and it’s hard to select varieties across that. So, as we’ve been doing this phenotyping over the past six years, we’ve now got a really good database, again, of lines that are performing–that are performing well in every environment, that are performing well every year.
And we have their phenotype, what they look like, how they’re performing, [and] how they’re responding to the environment, so we can, again, make predictions with that phenotype on how they might do in an unexperienced year.
Drew Lyon: Okay. So, I think a lot of people probably know genotypes–you’re looking at the gene. Phenotype–what really are you looking at when you say you’re phenotyping something?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah. So, we look at everything you would traditionally phenotype: plant height, heading date, grain yield, test weight, end-use quality. But then what our drones really allow us to do with our sensors is look at spectral data. And so, that’s how the plant is interacting with the sunlight, how much light it’s absorbing, what light it’s reflecting.
So, if a plant is drought stressed, it will reflect certain light [and] absorb different light than if it’s a super healthy plant. And so, this allows us to understand what plants are accessing more water in a drought year, what plants are staying green longer throughout the year, what plants are just healthier on a nutritional status. And so, that’s what the spectral data adds in there, which, like I say, helps us understand how they’re interacting with the environment more than just, you know, heading date or plant height.
Drew Lyon: Okay, so you’re using drones to collect this imagery in the field. You do anything in the greenhouse or growth chambers along that line or is it pretty much field?
Dr. Arron Carter: Not right now. We have few experiments in the greenhouse testing things. We’ve been working with some other groups testing if satellites can help us, but as far as breeding program and plot-level information, it’s all drones.
Drew Lyon: I’m forgetting what student it was of yours that talked to us about looking at wheat varieties that might be more competitive with weeds. And I think he mentioned that you’re able to kind of look at early season growth and see which ones really–because that’s important for weed competition.
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, so that’s another thing that we get with this is canopy closure. So, we can look and see what plants have more canopy closure at a given time point in the season. Yeah, for the same thing if it can be more competitive.
Drew Lyon: Okay, so what are some of the other projects your graduate students are working on these days?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, right now we’re working a lot–all of this is a progression, so we kind of solved that genetic issue. We then we moved on to the drones and the sensors. So, now we’re moving on to be able to include all of the weather data as well. So, you know, we’ve got the AgWeatherNet system that is very close to a lot of our research plots. Where we don’t have those, we partnered with a meter group to get some more weather sensors that are the same AgWeatherNet uses that we put in our locations. So, all of our locations now have great weather data associated with them. So, now we’re adding that next component–now I’m not just saying, “Well, it was a cool wet year,” but I can say “It was cool until June 15th and then it warmed up and we got precipitation on June 25th for five days and this much precipitation came,” and now understand how the plants are responding to those individual weather patterns at each location, which not only will help us better understand that in-season variation–we call it our low rainfall plantings that go everywhere from Kahlotus, Lind, Ritzville, Harrington, Davenport, Almira, Douglas. That’s low rainfall, but that’s a lot of variation still.
And so, it’ll help us understand varieties how they’re performing at each of those locations based on that individual weather data. And then again, as you build a big enough database for that, then you can again start making predictions and say, “What would happen to this variety if we got a late season rain or if we had early season rain or, you know, drought throughout the season,” that I think will help us build better varieties and select better varieties that can withstand this weather variation that we’re seeing. The past five years, we’ve seen just about everything and we need varieties that can withstand that and still be the top-performing varieties regardless of what the weather gives us. So, it gives the grower that added benefit of, “I can plant this variety; it doesn’t matter if it rains next year or is a drought year, it’s still going to be the best option that I have,” where previously they were always rolling the dice and picking the variety based on what they thought was going to come next year.
Drew Lyon: Okay. Yeah, I think, I probably saw this more in western Nebraska than I have in in Washington, but just like two or three days of hot, windy weather at the wrong time could cause all sorts of havoc. And so, having a variety that can withstand two or three days of stress at some critical point.
Dr. Arron Carter: Exactly, yeah. So, that’s what that weather data allows us to do is really dig in to each environment–look for those anomalies that we might see–whether it was a rain event or a drought event or a heat stress and then pair that up with the varieties that are still able to yield well in the face of that. And we’ve just never really, like I mentioned before, we’ve just never really dug in that far. We just make these big generalities about what the year looked like but don’t really pay attention to the specifics, and that’s where we’re headed with this project.
Drew Lyon: I think our ability to deal with huge data sets is getting better and better because it would have been almost impossible to do that just 5, 10 years ago, right?
Dr. Arron Carter: Exactly right. The computing power we have now allows us to look at multiple variables at the same time.
Drew Lyon: So, what are you working on today that might be beneficial to growers five years down the road?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah. I think everything I’ve been talking about is going to be beneficial as we select new varieties with these new protocols in place. Probably the biggest thing we’ve been talking a lot about [is] herbicide resistance. Maybe it’s not five years away, but we’re really thinking about trying to identify new mechanisms of resistance, right? We’ve got Clearfield, we’ve got CoAxium, which we know those are starting to fail. Weeds are already resistant to both those chemistries that are used in those systems. So, looking to try and identify some new systems. It may take a while to get the breeding down, but that’s really what we’re working on right now that I haven’t mentioned before, but I think it’s going to be beneficial coming up.
Drew Lyon: Okay. Can tell us a little bit more about that or is that still under wraps until you’ve got it a little farther along?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, some of it’s under wraps still. We’ve got a couple chemistries we’re working on, partnering a lot with Dr. Burke on that. And then, some of it’s just going to be some new screening.
We were able to partner with the University of Idaho. They had developed a mutant population in the soft white wheat Brundage. And so, we’re planning on doing some increases on that to get enough seed to screen it for some new chemistries that might be beneficial. And why I’m really excited about that is because it’s a soft white. When we worked with the CoAxium trait, we were bringing it in from a hard red winter from Colorado. And so, to take that and turn it into a soft white wheat for Washington, it takes a number of years just to get your basic traits back, let alone the performance of the system you’re really interested in. So, starting with a line like Brundage that we know already has good end-use quality, it’s already adapted, and it’s already the right market class–once we identify that resistance, we can transfer it more easily into a soft white background.
So, there’s various things going on. We’re kind of still–since we just recently got this population–we’re still kind of in discussions about what chemistries would be best. We need to get you involved in this too. What chemistries are going to be best with our rotation. You don’t want to pick a chemistry that is going to mess up a canola rotation or a pea rotation or something. So, it’s really in the start [phase of the] project. Like I say, it’s not maybe the five years away, but I think it’s really what we need right now to help maintain our system and be more sustainable.
Drew Lyon: Okay. I was out on several variety plot tours this past summer and CoAxium wheat kept coming up. I know you’re moving some material through, getting pretty close–do you have some released?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, we have a line that we released this summer. It’s named Nova AX. And so, of course, with that recent release, we were able to do a second increase on it. So, we were able to move it along a little bit and had some tens of thousands of pounds that we were able to get to the seed companies, so they’ll be doing their increases and I would expect it on some limited availability next fall and more widely available from them in two years as they increase the seed.
Drew Lyon: Okay. Anything else coming along in the CoAxium area?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah. So that’s in the soft white background. We’re continuing to work in the soft white backgrounds and also in some hard red backgrounds. But yeah, right now it’s just a lot about continued improvement. Like I mentioned, we took a hard red and made it a soft white. We worked really hard to make sure we got the quality there, so the quality on this line is excellent, and [we] worked really hard to make sure it was going to be a good broadly adapted line. We really tried not to cut many corners on the testing. We want to make sure it’s going to still be a good line for the growers and then it’s just the continued improvement on that, adding in additional sources of resistance, like snow mold. We need to get something with really good snow mold resistance. This line we have now is more intermediate. So, we’ve got to work on a line for that and work on a line for Soilborne Wheat Mosaic Virus and just all these other traits that we have to put in, now that we’ve got a good base of a soft white that we can use for our introgression—now we can go out and cross that to a number of other lines with specific traits and make selections.
Drew Lyon: Okay. So, sounds like lots of new things in the winter wheat breeding program here at WSU. Can growers go somewhere to see some of the things you’re up to? Do you have a website or do you put out a newsletter or something that people could get a hold of?
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, most everything we’ve got is on our website. It has a list of our varieties and links to descriptions about them. Some of the newer varieties, we’re in the final process of getting those links active. But yeah, it mentions some of the other articles we’ve been publishing, other podcasts I’ve been doing. They can really go there to see some of these other things we’ve been working on.
Drew Lyon: Do you know what the URL on that is?
Dr. Arron Carter: Ah, man, I don’t know the URL. I think just search my name and WSU and I’m usually the first one that pops up.
Drew Lyon: We’ll find it and put it in our show notes so listeners can go to that.
Arron, always good to have you on. Please try to get back here before another two or three years pass because there’s a lot of interest in your program. Winter wheat’s king around here and people are very interested in what you’re doing.
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, we understand that. As you heard, we’ve got a lot going on because of that—we’re really trying to get the growers good varieties. I’ll definitely make it more. I had my graduate students trying to get some experience and they’ve been doing awesome work with this genomic and phenomic selection I was talking about, so I felt they needed to tell their story also.
Drew Lyon: You’ve trained some really outstanding students over the past few years who have been guests on this show and we appreciate that.
Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, and I’ll make sure I get back more frequently.
Drew Lyon: Ok. Thanks.
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 [X] @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.