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Talking Wheat Breeding with Arron Carter

Posted by Blythe Howell | March 5, 2018

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Episode Transcription:

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Hello and welcome to the WSU Week 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. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Arron Carter. Dr. Carter was hired in 2009 as the WSU Winter Wheat breeder and in 2016, he was named the OA Vogel Endowed Chair of Winter Wheat Breeding and Genetics. The goals of his breeding program are to release high yielding cultivars with end-use quality that meets export criteria and which are resistant to abiotic and biotic stress. Hello Arron.

Arron Carter: Hi Drew, thanks for having me today.

Drew Lyon: It’s my pleasure to have you today. Say, this position, Winter Wheat Breeder at WSU, it’s a big deal. I was wondering what do you enjoy most about the job?

Arron Carter: Yeah. So one of the enjoyments are just being able to see your end product that being new varieties growing across the state. So it’s really good to see growers that adopt them, that are starting to get higher yields, that are improving their economics maybe because it’s resistant to a disease and so they don’t have to spray for that. And you know, just kind of that being able to see them adopt new varieties and improve on what we’ve done in the past. The other thing that’s really fun about the job is no one day is the same. So we — you know in the summertime, we’re driving across the state looking at different varieties, breeding plots, research plots, talking with growers. You know in the wintertime, we’re in the greenhouse, we’re in the labs. So it just seems like every day we’re doing something a little different and we get to interact with a lot of people. That being our stakeholders or maybe other researchers at WSU. It’s just fun to be able to have that diversity in a job.

Drew Lyon: Neat. So when I think about wheat and all the different traits could possibly breed for, how do you decide which one’s the most important and which ones you’re going to work on at any particular time?

Arron Carter: Right. Yeah, so you know we have a really good relationship with the Washington Grain Commission and their purpose is to serve the growers of the state. So as they get information from their constituents, they relay that back to us. Maybe about new diseases, we might be seeing that are coming up or information that they’re learning from. Other conversations, you know? They have a lot of conversations with our export markets as well. So we’re always getting feedback about end-use quality and the goals we need to meet there. And then just being out and meeting with growers. You know we interact with them at field days, at county grower meetings. Just get to hear what they’re facing, what their concerns are, what their successes have been, and use all that to try and determine the traits that we breed for and kind of place the priority where they need to be in the breeding process.

Drew Lyon: Okay. You know you’re named the OA Vogel Endowed Chair of Winter Wheat Breeding and Genetics back in 2016. So WSU has a long history of wheat breeding — Dr. Vogel being early on. How does that long history of wheat breeding at WSU, how does that benefit upcoming releases in your program?

Arron Carter: Yeah. So you know wheat breeding’s been going on for over 120 years at the university starting, you know, back in the 1890s with Spillman and you know, breeding really builds upon the history of varieties that have been in the past. So we’ve got a long success rate of just doing a lot of natural selection, planting them in the environments of Washington, and selecting year after year. And so those varieties just become more adapted every time we do that selection out in the field. And then like I say, we kind of build on those old varieties. So you know the varieties that were adapted 70 years ago, they got crosses to elite material and then selection again in the field. Then a new adaptive variety. And so we just keep adapting those varieties and bringing in new genetics to really face the environmental problems and disease problems that we have in this state. So like stripe rust, for instance, right? We’ve been screening for stripe rust resistance for decades now. And so a lot of the material we have in the program is very resistant but a lot of it we don’t exactly know what it is. You know it was just past breeders would bring in varieties. Select the resistant ones and those get carried forward. So we don’t know necessarily a lot about the genetics of them but we know that they’re highly resistant. Again building on that years and years of selection.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Even in my short time here, I came in 2012, one of the big changes I’ve seen is the entry of private wheat breeding companies into the marketplace. Really it was pretty much the realm of public wheat breeding when I started my career back in the ’90s. I’m kind of curious. How do you see public breeding programs like yours competing or coexisting with the private industry over the next decade?

Arron Carter: Yeah. You know that shake up really happened just as I got started. So just as I was getting started there were a lot of people going from public to private sector and new public breeders coming in, especially in the Pacific Northwest. You know a lot of the private companies came to the Pacific Northwest because although we don’t have a lot of acreage, we have a lot of the certified seed sales. So you can return — you can get a return on your investment there. So yeah, I kind of when I started you know I’ve kind of been, you know, coexisting with the private companies. You know how do we work with them? You know really it’s a good partnership. There can be a lot of germplasm exchange between companies. You know we have each different strengths and weaknesses in our programs. And so to be able to build upon those weaknesses, we have to get new germplasm from other sources. And so we can do some exchange with them. You know another thing like I mentioned previously on stripe rust resistance, you know our programs have some of the best stripe rust resistance there is and so being able to give some of that knowledge be it some of the genomics or the work we’re doing to find the new genes and identify them or just the germplasm. You know I look at it if every company breeding — breeding company, public or private, had resistant material that’s a win for the grower. so you know, if we can provide a private company resistant material and they can get their material resistant as well like I say that’s good for the growers. And so, you know, we’re here kind of to help that as a public institution not only like you say kind of that friendly competition of who’s got the best variety out there but also being able to provide other companies with germplasm that can enhance their program because in the end, it’s all about the grower and the grower getting the best variety. So you know like I say, we have that friendly competition of making sure, you know, we always want to be the best and have the best varieties out there that are growing on the state. And so like I say, it’s kind of this coexisting with them of helping each other with our strengths and weaknesses. You know we talk a lot just about what we’re seeing out in the field, what are the concerns, you know what different groups are focusing on, and so it’s really been a good relationship. And I see that continuing on, you know, for the next 10 years or even further. You know definitely things are going to change and you know private companies come in and out. And just kind of the way that whole dynamics is shifting a little bit even right now with some mergers of different companies. So it’ll be interesting to see but like you say, it’s kind of — I think it’s going to be a good relationship.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I probably have a simplistic view of all this but I think about private wheat breeder as having a job of breeding wheats and I know what all you’re involved in. You breed wheats. You train graduate students. You write grants to support your program. You write journal articles. Seems like the demands upon a public breeder are much more multifaceted but perhaps, I don’t understand what all is demanded of the private breeder. I just wonder how you-you know how you manage all that in your program where you have all these other responsibilities. I also know you do a lot with the undergraduate teaching program. So you have a lot of things going on.

Arron Carter: Yeah. Yeah we do. You know what I’m sure the private breeders, they’ve got their internal committees and meetings that they have to have with their supervisors as well. So you know we’re all busy and being pulled different ways. You know one of the ways I do it is I surround myself with really good people. So I’ve got great technicians that are able to manage the field program, the lab, the greenhouse. You know? And so I can really hand some projects over to them and feel pretty confident that it’s going to get accomplished correctly. So I really have to do little oversight over there. So really I can focus my time really on the breeding on the selection, you know thinking about what traits to use. Thinking about new technologies that we might be able to use to be more efficient and effective what we do in the breeding. You know we have grad students and all of our grad student projects directly tie into our breeding program. So you know, they might be finding a new gene for snow molds resistance for example. So if we can use that genetics instead of the field screening which can be variable. We never know when we’re going to get snow mold out in the field. Again that benefits the breeding program so we can incorporate some grad student work in there as well. But you know it’s one of the reasons I came to a public breeding program as well. You know I enjoy the teaching aspect of it, being able to train new plant breeders, and so yeah, some days it can definitely be difficult when you, you know, go home with a pile of exams or papers to read and spend all night doing that as well. But you know I’ve never felt that it got in the way of actually doing breeding. You know I’ve been able to manage my time fairly well and again, a lot of good people to support me.

Drew Lyon: I know in graduate school – I won’t tell you how many decades ago it was – you know, I took some genetics classes and then I sit in seminars today and listen to the graduate students give their [talks]– and I don’t understand much of what they’re talking about. There are all sorts of new breeding approaches coming along. I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about maybe what the latest and greatest is and how you’re trying to use that in your program today.

Arron Carter: Yeah. You know I’ve only been in — you know out of my Ph.D. for eight years and just about everything I did in my Ph.D. is irrelevant now as well. So you know I’ve had to learn a little bit with my students on some of this new technology. So when you look at the genetics, you know we’re going from kind of the single DNA markers that are associated with the trait of interest now to being able to fully sequence the plant. Look at the entire genome of all the genes that are present instead of focusing in on one or two. I mean it’s really been able to change the way we think about doing our selections and really biasing populations before they even go out to the field. So if I can look at, you know, all these thousands of genes in wheat and make a prediction of whether they’ll be successful in the field or not, and maybe get rid of those 20 or 30% that absolutely have no chance, that’s fewer lines I have to look at in the field. More resources can go into other things. You know and so it’s really looking at that effectiveness of trying to get rid, we call it negative selection, right? Getting rid of all the lines that just don’t have a chance. So some of those new sequencing technologies will help us. And then we’ve also been able to look at a lot of the sensing technologies. So you know a lot of what we do with — as plant breeders is what we can see with our eyes and we do very good at that as well. But there’s some new technologies coming along now like plant water stress. You know we might be able to detect water stress in a plant with sensors that I might not be able to detect with my eyes or looking at the temperature of a plant or maybe how well photosynthesis is working in that plant under different conditions. So these sensors are starting to give us a look. It’s kind of that second generation, right? We can see height. We can see heading date. We can see just how the plant looks overall but now we’re kind of the next step of what’s really going on inside the plant. How is it reacting with the environment? Can we detect this earlier in the breeding process? And sensors are able to help us a lot. And so kind of that two pronged approach of new genomic tools, new ways to phenotype and look at the plants, that’s really some new technology we’ve been able to use. A lot of that’s been able to come through some USDA grant funding that we have to help us really incorporate this. Not just do the research but how do we really incorporate it into a breeding program and use it right. Because I can write all the papers I want on the research side of it but if I don’t actually apply it to the breeding program, it doesn’t make much sense or help us really. So that’s really where our focus has been lately.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Really an exciting area and changing rapidly and I know the growers of the state really look to you to bring them good stuff to help them out in their practices. And if our listeners want to learn a little bit more about what you’re doing is there a website they can go to look for that information?

Arron Carter: Yeah. So if you just go to my WSU faculty page. There’s a lot of links on there about the research we’re doing, the grants that have been funded, you know different articles on our program, and then, of course, people are always welcomed to contact me directly like via email if they have specific questions or if they want to learn more about some of these new technologies we’re using in the program. So either way like I say faculty page or contact me directly.

Drew Lyon: And the faculty page would be at Is that correct?

Arron Carter: Yeah. Yeah if you go there, there’ll be a link on the left-hand side that will take you to the faculty and staff and you can find me there pretty easy.

Drew Lyon: Very good. Thank you very much, Arron.

Arron Carter: All right. Thank you, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Thanks for listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you have questions for us, that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at You can find us online at You can also find us on social media on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. Subscribe to this show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon; we’ll see you next week.

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