Building a new alpha amylase test with Adam Johnson

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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.


My guest today is Adam Johnson. Adam is the senior manager of the R&D Rare Reagents Group at Envirologix. He earned his M.S. in biochemistry from the University of Maine. He’s been with Envirologix for 18 years, where he specializes in antibody, bioconjugate, nanoparticle, and custom reagent development for use in rapid diagnostic assays. Adam has submitted a patent application for his work that is core to the development of a new rapid assay that will estimate the falling numbers result of a given wheat sample. Hello, Adam.

Adam Johnson: Hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So, what is the basis of this new wheat amylase test and how does this relate to the falling numbers test?

Adam Johnson: Well, the basis of our new rapid test is correlating alpha amylase activity with falling numbers results. We’ve known for a long time that the two are, you know, well tied together. The more alpha amylase activity you see in a given wheat sample, the lower falling numbers you get for that same sample.

So, what we’ve done is we’ve essentially made an alpha amylase activity assay that, you know, can quantitate or even predict the falling numbers sample from your wheat.

So, what’s core to this technology is some stuff that we’ve developed here in-house. We’ve engineered an alpha amylase substrate that’s packaged up in a nice, neat little dissolvable tablet that is co-incubated with your wheat sample. After a brief amount of time, that sample is then subjected to a lateral flow assay, which is responsible for the report out of the overall assay.

Using our quick scan reader that Envirologix offers, the strip is placed in there and the result is given numerically. What we’re looking at in terms of a working range for our assay readout is a low end of approximately 200 seconds and a high end of approximately 350 seconds. And as we understand it, this is the range of the falling numbers assay that people are most concerned about. The wheat industry does have a tiered pricing that comes with wheat samples as they move it from distributor to distributor, grain elevator to grain elevator, and ultimately for export. So, we’re trying to give a prediction of the wheat sample so that it can then be utilized further somewhere in the supply chain.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, this test would be used more in elevators which typically don’t have the machinery to test it, at least quickly, and allow them to segregate wheat that might have low falling numbers. Is that the idea?

Adam Johnson: Exactly. One thing that our marketing and sales folks do is something we call “voice of the customer.” We’re trying to find who needs what out there and, you know, what’s presenting itself as an obstacle. And one thing that, you know, we’re finding over and over again is that there’s certain areas that are 1. not equipped with a lab setting where your typical falling numbers machine would be set up, and 2. they just don’t have a lot of time to evaluate a truckload of wheat or a shipment of wheat and get an idea as to what the falling numbers result might be. So, we’re trying to, you know, find these areas and accommodate, you know, the users of this test so that they can get, you know, a rapid answer and then make decisions with what to do with the wheat.

Is it high quality wheat, medium, or low–and then know how to possibly bin or segregate that sample for further use down the supply chain?

Drew Lyon: Okay. We mentioned elevators as being one potential user of this. Who else in the wheat industry might be users of this new technology?

Adam Johnson: Right. There could be users with finished wheat products, such as wheat flour. We understand that flour is ideal at a certain falling numbers value to then be released to the consumers or be put on the grocery store shelf. So, we’re seeing a need there, we’re seeing folks that are doing multiple tests with wheat not just for falling number samples but also contaminants, such as mycotoxins.

And, you know, we feel that this could be used as a companion product.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I think a lot of people by now are familiar with the Covid test. How does this test kind of compare to what is done with the Covid test?

Adam Johnson: It’s very similar technology. As we’ve all probably taken a Covid test in our lives, we know that you are going to take a–we’ll call it a sample from yourself and then just kind of apply it to a liquid solution, which a few drops are applied to the Covid test and over several minutes, you know, you’re going to see the formation of 1 or 2 lines.

Our lateral flow devices are no different. One thing we can do is we can actually apply these strips into a reader and based on the intensity of those lines, you can extract a quantitative result. And the way our reader works is that there is a preset, standard curve, if you will, that the reader knows to, you know, take the intensity reading from our strips and apply it back to that curve and extract, you know, a quantitative value.

So, that’s kind of the key difference is that, you know, ours is a quantitative device whereas your average Covid test is qualitative. That’s more yes or no.

Drew Lyon: Right. Okay. Interesting. So, what are the advantages? What advantages can be realized by using this new rapid test? I know I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the current test and its variability from site to site and how slow it works. So, how does this new assay compare to that?

Adam Johnson: There’s a couple things that you can capitalize on with our product, mostly time savings and, you know, the convenience factor that, you know, it can be performed somewhere that’s not in a lab setting. The falling numbers test, if you’ve ever run one, it’s a little bit variable in terms of time to results. You know, the lower the falling numbers, the quicker the test will be in the end. But for high-quality samples, you know, these can run for upwards of 10+ minutes.

Our test is going to run the same amount of time each and every time. It’s approximately nine minutes in length for the procedure. There are no glass tubes to clean–if you’ve ever had to fight that battle, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Everything is essentially disposable.

You can run multiple tests. We’re trying to land on a certain recommendation for our users as to how many tests can be run in parallel. On an R&D level, we’ve run as many as eight and, you know, the fact that our quick scan, you know, can read multiple strips, you can also get multiple answers from your sample in parallel with the falling numbers.

One thing we also like to offer to our users of our products is workflow assistance. We like to, you know, kind of meet up with the customers at the site, kind of see what their workflow looks like–you know, what they have for time constraints, materials, anything they want to gain efficiencies with. And that’s one thing that we’ve received very positive feedback on is the assistance we provide for customers and, you know, kind of customizing or helping them fashion a workflow that best suits their needs.

Again, I’ve already mentioned that, you know, other tests can be run in parallel. The one that we’re showcasing right now is a test we already offer that’s GIPSA certified, and that’s for vomitoxin or DON. It’s a very common wheat contaminant and we’ve known throughout all of development that, you know, we have plenty of customers that use our DON test but also want to know falling numbers results. So, we’ve matched the entire sample preparation procedure with that of DON. So, if you’ve used our DON assay, you have effectively, you know, completed the sample prep that would be attributed to our falling numbers test.

So, it’s all about gaining efficiencies, you know, getting people the answers they need when they need them so that they can make those decisions.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I know you’ve worked extensively with Dr. Amber Hauvermale here at Washington State University. How have you found that collaboration? So, this is kind of a private-public collaborative effort. Is this the first time you’ve done that or what are the pros and cons of working with a public university like Washington State University?

Adam Johnson: It’s been all pros, really. The fact that, you know, we’re working with, you know, an academia entity, you know, we’re getting highly educated with all the ins and outs and considerations on what to incorporate into our product. Things to look out for. Things to avoid.

And, you know, just at face value, the falling numbers tests seem rather simple. It’s, you know, a wheat quality test. These are your results. You know, there’s all kinds of little exceptions, little nuances to the technique of running that. They got us up to speed on that rather quickly. You know, we’re serving as an industry partner for the grant and I think that’s helping everyone collaboratively because, you know, the whole crux of her grant is to, you know, find alternative solutions to the falling numbers test.

And, you know, we’re not looking to replace the falling numbers test. We’re looking to, you know, just be an alternative source where there are limitations to conduct the falling numbers test with the machine as it is. So, you know, getting recommendations on how to process wheat, you know, the use of the machine like I said, you know, has all been hugely helpful and just helped us quickly educate ourselves. Whereas, that can be kind of a slower process when entering a new field.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, where are you at? I think, my understanding is that there’ll be some beta testing this coming harvest season. And then where do you go from there?

Adam Johnson: Yes. Beta testing is set to commence over the next three to four weeks. With Amber’s lab specifically, we’re hoping to get them a few thousand tests by mid-July and this will be coming from our Pilot One. So, we’ve already made a manufacturing prototype and tested that thoroughly. We’re feeling really good about its performance, but now this is where beta testing comes in.

You can put it in the hands of, you know, would-be users and, you know, get that feedback as to what they’re seeing. Are you seeing strong correlation? Are you seeing it miss? Where are you seeing it miss? So, that’s what we’re hoping to gain over the course of this summer during the wheat harvest. And ultimately, we are hoping to launch the product in September, which is unfortunate. We’ve had some technical barriers. We wanted to have this ready for the beginning of this harvest, but we also want to make sure that, you know, we’re getting reliable performance as well as consistent.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, the hope would be to have it ready for harvest 2025 then?

Adam Johnson: Absolutely.

Drew Lyon: And you mentioned the DON test being fairly similar. Are there other extended uses of the test that are yet to be determined or developed?

Adam Johnson: There are some that we have looked at briefly. There was an ask from our marketing team to assess the applicability of this test to barley and we have shown that it functions in barley. I think there may be a modified protocol just because barley has very high alpha amylase activity. But we found ways to adjust the product formulation to accommodate that.

As I already mentioned, you know, the flour industry, you know, it’s not as contingent on harvest. You know, flour processing is ongoing throughout the year. One thing we’re learning about how the flour mills put together their flour is that they’ll blend it with some extent of barley or even a fungal amylase. So, we’re trying to, you know, get an extended view of what that’s going to look like and see how well we can capture that with this quantitative tool.

One other, you know, almost unexpected, side use of this product would be the fact that it could be read a different way. Rather than use our lateral flow strip, there’s actually a fluorescent component that is baked in. It’s one that I put in there during development just so I could ensure what I thought was happening was really happening. It was like a second checkpoint.

So, I mentioned this to Amber and she is seeing possibly an R&D-level tool for high throughput needs. So, as you know, I mean, she’s thoroughly mixed into, you know, the wheat community and gathering hundreds if not thousands of wheat samples and wanting results for all of these. So, while a lateral flow strip may be a little bit more limiting to run a few at a time, we may be, you know, releasing a fluorescence assay that could be read in a microtiter plate.

And, you know, a microtiter plate can hold 96 samples. So, there’s some talk about, you know, maybe refashioning this, repackaging it as a high throughput tool. I can’t make any commitments there, but I have shown a very strong correlation between the fluorescent reading and the strip performance. So again, something we’re looking at and, you know, just trying to find, you know, where people might have a need for any and all iterations of this test.

Drew Lyon: All right, Adam. This is really interesting and exciting new technology. I really like the idea of the public-private collaboration because I think you just right there demonstrated the strength of the private industry to look for different ways of doing things and bringing products of value to the customer, and the public side finding ways to utilize it in research and development.

So again, thank you for being my guest today and sharing this new development. I think our listeners will want to keep an eye on how this develops. Maybe later this year or early next year, we can have you back on and talk about where we’re at and what the product looks like it can ultimately do for them.

Adam Johnson: That sounds great. Yes. I’d love to rejoin you guys again. You know, following our launch, you know, talk to some of the beta testing results that we’re getting and just overall how we feel this product can be received and helping out all the folks in the wheat community.

Drew Lyon: Excellent. Thank you very much for your time, Adam.

Adam Johnson: All right. Thank you, Drew.


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 — ( You can find us online at 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.