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Remembering Bob Allan & His Historic Contributions to the PNW Wheat Industry

Posted by Blythe Howell | May 3, 2021

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Show Notes & Resources Mentioned:

None for this episode.

Contact Information:

Contact Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell via email at kim.garland-campbell@usda.gov and Dr. Tim Paulitz via email at timothy.paulitz@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 podcasting app and leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guests today are Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell and Dr. Timothy Paulitz. Kim is a research geneticist with the USDA-ARS with an adjunct faculty appointment in the WSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences in Pullman. Kim has been a wheat breeder since 1992 and has been in her current position since 1999. The goals of her project are pre-breeding for wheat disease resistance and club wheat cultivar development. She has the distinction of being the only wheat breeder who has a primary focus on club wheat. Tim is a research plant pathologist with the USDA-ARS Wheat Health, Genetics, and Quality Research Unit in Pullman. He joined ARS in 2000 after spending 10 years at McGill University in Quebec as an assistant and associate professor. His research focus is on fungal and nematode root diseases of wheat, barley, and other rotation crops with an emphasis on the root and crown rotting fungi Rhizoctonia, Pythium, Fusarium, and the nematode Heterodera, if I said that correctly, the serial cyst nematode. In the last 10 years, he has investigated the bacterial and fungal communities in the soil and roots of wheat cropping systems using next-generation DNA sequencing. He is currently working on soil health, how microbial communities and microbiomes benefit plant health by protecting against soil-borne pathogens and drought stress. Hello, Kim.

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Hello, Tim.

Dr. Tim Paulitz: Hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So received the news, sad news here, just the other day that Dr. Bob Allan, retired USDA-ARS wheat breeder in Pullman died on Sunday, March 28. He was 90 years old. Tim, it’s my understanding that you gave the eulogy at Bob Allan’s funeral. I wonder if you can give us kind of a brief history of Bob’s life?

Dr. Tim Paulitz: Yeah. A brief history of Bob and, actually, a lot of this is taken out of his obituary, which he wrote himself. Bob was born in 1931 in Morris, Illinois. He had an older brother named Tom. His parents ran a furniture store in Morris, but they also had a farm in Wisconsin, a livestock farm. And so Bob grew up on that farm and had a lot of experience in agriculture. Did his grade school/high school there. And then, he actually skipped the last year of high school and enrolled at Iowa State College at the time and got a degree in agriculture. And then, was also part of the ROTC there, was commissioned as a lieutenant, and volunteered for the Korean War. And then, went to Korea and Japan and was a decorated war veteran. He was actually a forward artillery observer during that period of time. So then he came back and by that time he was married and he tells a story that his parents sold the farm and he thinks that was one of the best things that happened for him because that got him moving in agricultural research. So then he got an assistantship at Kansas State College at the time and worked with, was it Elmer Hiney?

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Uh-huh. Yeah, Elmer Hiney.

Drew Lyon: Elmer Hiney in wheat genetics. Graduated in 1958. But even before he finished, he was offered a position here in Pullman with Orville Vogel. And he tells a story at the time it was all done just by a few phone calls and some telegrams. None of that long process of interviews and vetting and everything. They knew who they wanted. So Bob came here in 1957 as a geneticist and club wheat breeder. And I’m going to skip over a lot because we’re going to cover that later on. But just to say, he spent a 40-year career with ARS, 24 years as a research leader. And he had a tremendous impact at the time. He released 12 cultivars or varieties on his own and then I think collaborated with another 16 or so. And the economic value of those varieties from the time they were released until he retired was over $5 billion, that is with a B, dollars in income to the growers. At the time he retired, his varieties were grown on 78% of the acreage in Washington, which is incredible. And then you go forward another 10 years around 2006 they were still being grown on 70% of the acreage. And then you go to 2010, it dropped down to about 21% of the acres. But his most famous variety, Madsen, which we’ll also talk about in a minute, did not fall off the top 10 list until just last year?

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Uh-huh. Yeah, 2019.

Drew Lyon: Wow.

Dr. Tim Paulitz: Until just about a year ago. So he had a tremendous impact on the industry. He had 24 graduate students from all over the world, was very active in education, very active with Crops and Soils Department over the years, very supportive of a lot of their efforts. And then, just one final thing, I got to know Bob when I came here in 2000. So I said that Bob retired in 1996, but he never did retire. [ Drew laughs ] So he would come every morning to his office at Johnson Hall, have coffee with some of the retired professors about 10:30, and then join a group of us in the lunchroom. There was myself, there was a couple retired plant pathology professors, Jack Rogers, Lee Hadwiger, and then Dave Weller and Linda Thomashaw who are and still working for ARS. And we would talk about just about everything trying to solve the problems of the world. We’d talk about religion, politics, Cougar athletics, university administration, farming, weather. And so I really got to know a lot about Bob over that 20 years and we basically that group was going right up until COVID. And so that is where I really got to know Bob. And, again, he never retired. He bought a farm in the early 1970s south of Pullman about 160 acres, built a house, was actively engaged in farming, but he would also breed wheat in his backyard. And so he had plots he was developing germplasm right up until the very end. He had some plots he put out last fall. He had a barn where he fertilized his seedlings in an old refrigerator. So was actively working on a club wheat book, which he released a few years ago. So, again, Bob was active right up until the very end. So that is kind of a thumbnail sketch of kind of Bob in summary.

Drew Lyon: Sounds like he found something he really loved and just went through life with that love. That is what they say you’re supposed to do but very few of us succeed at that. Thank you very much for the summary. Kim, he was a club wheat breeder. How did Bob influence the work that you do in your breeding program?

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Well, he had a tremendous influence. I think, actually, he was instrumental in them deciding to actually hire me rather than one of the other candidates. He said, you got to take her, she’s the wheat breeder, you know? And I first met Bob when I interviewed but because he was around all that time and I was actually a part of the lunch bunch in the last few years too, he was always a part of my life here. And I would mention Bob in every talk I gave routinely because he left me with such a legacy of germplasm. He had worked really, really hard, along with Orville Vogel, with adult plant resistance to stripe rust and other diseases. He worked very hard on soil-borne diseases like eyespot. And so it was hard for me to talk about anything coming out of the program without mentioning Bob. And, finally, I think it was in 2015 after I’d been here for about 15 years he said, you know, Kim, you don’t have to mention me in everything, some of this work is actually from you, you know? [ Drew and Kim laugh ] And so he was a very humble guy. So and I think probably his biggest contribution, as Tim mentioned, was the development of Madsen wheat where he incorporated genes from a wild relative of wheat that had been crossed to a French variety and then crossed that into first club wheats but then into local soft white wheats. And he was looking at resistance to eyespot and he always said the reason why he even heard about this wheat to begin with was due to an open bar at one of the quantitative genetics conferences in Columbia, Missouri where he got to talking to the French wheat breeder who had developed the original line who gave him some seeds and then Bob incorporated those into Madsen, released Madsen, which Tim has gone through, its impact on agriculture here, but it also had a second gene for stripe rust resistance that is still extremely important. And his work developing that germplasm, which he shared with other wheat breeders in this region, got transferred into the Great Plains kind of by accident because of a mix up in what they thought they were looking at in the field. But that gene has been very, very important in the Great Plains as well and it has other resistances on it that are important. So Bob either advertently or inadvertently contributed tremendously to western wheat breeding in the U.S., so.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So he left you with a lot of good germplasm. Did he have a philosophy of wheat breeding that he shared with you or what did you take from his program if anything?

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Well, one thing he got burned kind of early on. When he first got here, Orville said two things. He said, take over the club program because I don’t really like club wheat. That was Orville. [ laughs ] So Bob did that. So he really kept club wheat alive in this region and it’s still a very important economic product. But he also Orville asked him to figure out what the genetics were behind the reduced height genes that Orville was famous for, the semi-dwarf genes. And Bob always said it was one of the easiest things he ever did, it’s just a simple two-gene trait, you know? Dominant two gene trait or semi-dominant. And Bob brought this real genetic emphasis on the work that he did. And so when he started working with stripe rust, he would pick one gene at a time and move it into material and the genes kept getting overcome by the pathogen even before they were released. So probably in the ’70s, he decided he’d start working with adult plant resistance to stripe rust and purposefully avoiding single-gene resistance and incorporating a lot of smaller effect genes into material. And he did all of this without molecular markers, which to the geneticists out there I think you really have to give kudos to the older guys who were able to do some of this work without some of the tools we have today. But because of that, his philosophy was that you never wanted to get anything too pure. And he was famous for having released a couple of multi-lines. One was called Crew and one was called Rely where he combined a lot of different sources of stripe rust resistance into backcrosses to a common parent and then put them all together in a cultivar. And Crew was really a mess. I mean, he had all kinds of tall and short and everything in that line, but Rely was a really good-looking line. It was widely grown when I got here. And so as we moved along, you know, when I came in and started talking about doubled haploids and genetic purity, he’d always warn me, no, no, you don’t want to get things too pure, you know? [ laughter] So I think that was the overarching thing that he said.

Dr. Tim Paulitz: Yeah. And I’ll point out that Rely was one of the first examples of a multi-line. And the idea was instead of having — you actually make a mixture of ones that have different resistance genes but they all have the same agronomic. And that was really revolutionary at the time, the idea that instead of planting thousands of acres of one gene that would be easy for the rust pathogen to overcome you put together these mixtures. And so I think that was one of his unrecognized contributions.

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Yeah, I really do think so.

Drew Lyon: That is something you see now that some companies are selling two and three different cultivars in a mix with kind of the same idea, although it’s hard to match them upright with maturities and some other things–.

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Right, yeah. And they do it with like the original Bt-resistant corn was released as a mixture of Bt resistant and non-resistant for the same reason, actually, so.

Drew Lyon:  Right. Okay. Tim, what do you see as Bob’s greatest contributions to wheat production in the region, nationally, and even internationally?

Dr. Tim Paulitz: Yeah. Maybe I’ll start out with international because I think this is an untold story. You know, everybody knows about Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution, but not many people know that Orville and Bob were really part of that, you know? So that semi-dwarf gene originally came from a line out of Japan after World War II and Orville worked on it for a number of years. It turns out, of course, if you reduce the height of the wheat, you can apply more nitrogen and get higher yields. And so at the time wheat was, what? Four or 5 feet tall and now if it’s 3 feet tall it’d be a lot. And Norman was a wheat breeder with the Rockefeller Foundation, which later became CIMMYT. And so they worked a lot together. He got those lines. Bob was instrumental in understanding the genetics behind it. And then, Orville released the first semi-dwarf lines probably in the early ’60s with Gaines and New Gains. And Bob tells a story that Norman did not believe the yield increases that they were getting so Norman came up here and actually visited the growers to really verify what was happening. And so that technology he took to Mexico, incorporated it into their material, and then took it to India to the Punjab, the breadbasket of India, and it was incorporated there. And the same technology became part of rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. And Norman won a Nobel Prize for this in 1970 for the Green Revolution and for preventing massive starvation that was predicted at the time because of the population increase. So, again, Bob was a huge part of that whole Green Revolution. So, again, impacted the lives of millions of people. And then, on the level of the Pacific Northwest, as Kim mentioned, Madsen, you know, I think was and still is a very excellent variety and the durability of that it’s something that could be released 33 years later still being grown. And so Kim mentioned the eyespot resistance, which was revolutionary at the time. Growers used to have to spray a lot of fungicides to control that and this gene has been introduced and so it’s saved the growers a lot of fungicides. A few other things, and I think Bob is really unrecognized for a lot of things. One, he figured out what the mechanism behind that reduced height gene was. He linked it with gibberellic acid, which is a plant hormone which is involved in stem elongation. And it turns out, these are gibberellin insensitive mutants. And so understanding that really opened that up. Another thing that Bob is unrecognized for is I think he was probably the first marker-assisted selection.

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Definitely. Yeah.

Dr. Tim Paulitz: Which is a tool now that breeders take for granted. They use DNA to look for different traits and use that to select. Well, they had developed an isozyme method that would be a marker for the eyespot resistance gene and he also incorporated that. You know, so I think for the Pacific Northwest and then, as Kim mentioned, the impact of club wheats are still pretty important in this region. So I think he made a lot of contributions there. And the other thing about Bob was he was a farmer. You know, he had his own farm, grew up on a farm, and I think he really understood the growers and what they needed and I think that was another part of his success. So, again, I think very under-recognized but certainly made a lot of contributions economically to the Pacific Northwest.

Drew Lyon: Kim, do you have anything you want to add to that?

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Yeah, I just I kind of want to amplify on it because that use of that isozyme for the eyespot resistance gene in Madsen, you know, it allowed us to move the eyespot resistance gene around very easily not only in the program but it’s led to Madsen being a parent of most of the soft white wheat varieties that we currently grow, either a parent or a grandparent because that resistance was so critical. And it’s really a resistance that is not only critical on the Palouse but we find eyespot throughout the whole wheat-growing region in the Pacific Northwest. And then, as Tim mentioned, with the identifying that gibberellic acid was involved in the reduced height phenotype, it kind of opened up this whole area of research. Because along with reducing the height, there were some negatives that were associated with that trait one of which the seed germination is a little lower, the emergence from deep sowing is lower. But because we understood that it is related to gibberellic acid, we know that we need to develop ways to work around the direct effect of that particular gene. And we know from other species like Arabidopsis that there are workarounds in plants. And so it’s allowed us to really investigate these different avenues. And you see a lot of that in the Washington winter wheat program now with lines like Eltan and Otto, which actually are semi-dwarf varieties but they have very good emergence and they come up from deep sowing. So I think not only as a breeder but as a very critical scientist he had a lot of effect. And then the other area is he not only worked on RHT1 and 2, which are these kind of the shorthand names of these original semi-dwarf genes, but he worked a lot on developing near-isogenic lines for all of the reduced height genes that have been identified. And, actually, that is what he is still working on. He kind of left me instructions the last time I saw him like these are the crosses that need to be made. [ Drew laughs ] And he worked a lot on examining the effects of the different vernalization genes and developing near-isogenic lines for those. And especially those that work on the reduced height genes has been used a lot internationally and especially in Australia by CSIRO who have taken his germplasm and, you know, further characterized it and moved it into their material and identified the combinations that really work in really dry environments in Australia, so.

Drew Lyon: Thanks, Kim. Tim, what would you say you appreciate most about Bob?

Dr. Tim Paulitz: Well, there’s a few characteristics that I really appreciate. First of all, as I mentioned before, his passion for the science and wheat breeding. It was not a 9:00 to 5:00 job. It was not something you retired after the age of 65. You know, he kept working on that throughout his life. So that is one thing that I recognize. The other thing is Bob was, as Kim mentioned, a bit humble and I think he was under-recognized. And, you know, it wasn’t until later in his life when he received that award, I think it was in 2017, the lifetime award of the National Plant Breeders that I think people really recognized the contributions that he had. He was not a self-promoter. A lot of times, scientists that make big impacts also had big egos and Bob certainly didn’t have that. He was very collaborative throughout his entire career. The other thing about Bob, he was generous. Generous in sharing his knowledge with graduate students and the subsequent generations. Graduate students could always go to his office and chat with him or breeders or anybody else. He would share that knowledge. He was also very generous in his support for WSU, Department of Crops and Soils, Spillman Farm. I think there was actually a named seminar series after him. The other thing about Bob is a great sense of humor. He always had a lot of good jokes. Devoted to his family. He always talked about Carrie and his family. He had four children, numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren. He would always talk about them. Another thing about Bob, and maybe this is intrinsic to being a good plant breeder, and that is curiosity and the power of observation. You know, to be able to look at thousands and thousands of plots year after year and be able to recognize that one character that you’re after and being able to pull that out. Another thing about Bob, of course, is persistence. And I think that is another characteristic of a plant breeder to take that long-term approach, you know? And science it’s kind of like flavor of the month, you know? A new technology comes along and everybody jumps on that and then it’s hot and then they move onto the next one and they can’t really see the forest through the trees. And Bob was one that could take that long-term approach and work for something, you know, for 40 years. And then, the final thing, as I mentioned before, because Bob came from a farming background, had his own farm, I really think he had a rapport with the growers that they knew that what he was putting out was really something that would benefit them. So those are kind of all the characteristics that, you know, I think made Bob such a great scientist, a great plant breeder, and also a great person. So I think he will certainly be missed.

Drew Lyon: Kim, you have anything to add?

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Yeah, Tim got a lot of it. He was a great mentor to me. Very, very generous. And I would send almost all of my students by to talk to him. I did learn early on that if he made kind of what seemed like an offhand comment, I should listen to it. One time I was talking about these two RHT genes and I said something like it looks like RHT1 is slightly less effective. And he goes, yeah, some people have noticed that. And then later, I found out he had written about three papers on the topic and developed a bunch of germplasm and tested it. [laughs ] And the same thing happened just a couple years ago when I went to him and I said, have you ever done any work on subchron internodes? Which is the part of the wheat plant that is below the soil surface. It’s between the seed and where the roots actually start to develop. And he said — Or it’s actually between the seed and where the crown develops are. And he said, I did a little work on that in the past. And, again, I found out he had advised a graduate student on the subject, he developed multiple populations, and he had published three papers on the topic. And so I learned really quick not to discount anything he said at lunch, [ laughs ] you know, especially if it involved wheat breeding, so.

Drew Lyon: I know it was a disappointment to me, I think Kim you suggested several years ago that I get Bob on the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast.

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Yeah.

Drew Lyon: And I tried several times, I thought I had him once, and then I think he caught a bad cold or something so we delayed it. And just never got him on. And I really regret not doing that. But I really appreciate you two coming and talking a little bit about Bob because I think he was a treasure for this part of the world and I think it’s good to look back and remember what all he brought to wheat growers in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Yeah.

Drew Lyon: Thank you very much for your time.

Dr. Tim Paultz: Thank you, Drew,

Dr. Kim Garland-Campbell: Thanks, Drew. Thanks.

[ Music ]

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 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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