Free Radicals & Drought Tolerance with Dr. Andrei Smertenko

By Rob Clark near PCFC Farm in Pullman, Washington.

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Show Notes & Resources Mentioned:

Contact Information:

Contact Dr. Andrei Smertenko via email at or via phone at (509) 335-5795.

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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.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Andrei Smertenko. Andrei is a cell biologist at the Institute of Biological Chemistry in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. Andrei joined WSU over eight years ago. Andrei wants to understand how cells respond to drought stress and how we can harness processes inside cells to improve crop yields in arid climate. Hello, Andrei.

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Hello, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So I was reading oh, it’s been a couple of weeks ago now, that you and Dr. Michael Pumphrey, our WSU spring wheat breeder, were awarded a $2 million project from the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research. The title of the project is Improving Drought and Heat Resiliency in Crops Using Self-protection Mechanisms. Now that’s an important topic, but I imagine much like me, many of our listeners may be wondering what are these self-protection mechanisms? Can you tell us a little bit about those?

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Yes, of course. Plants have three types of mechanisms responsible for survival under drought and high temperatures. First is escape. This group of mechanisms collectively leads to acceleration of plant developmental program aimed at production of seeds before the onset of harsh weather. Second group of mechanisms is avoidance. These mechanisms aim at water use efficiency by reducing evaporation of water from leaf surface through stomata closure or accessing soil moisture through deeper and bigger root system. System Mechanisms and tolerance Mechanisms. This mechanisms include changes of plant by chemical reactions aimed at minimizing the impact of stress on cells. While projects refers to these changes as self-protection mechanisms.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so it’s these this latter approach that you’re focusing in on rather than the earlier two you mentioned the escape.

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Right.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So we hear a lot about free radicals these days. I’m wondering, it sounds a little bit maybe like that. We know that free radicals are bad for our health. Drinking Diet Pepsi is supposedly releases free radicals, which aren’t all good for you. Do plants also suffer from free radicals?

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Yeah, unfortunately. It’s a significant problem. So a lot of free radicals are produced during photosynthesis when plants use energy of sunlight to fix carbon dioxide. And unfortunately, the production of these antioxidants increases during the stress because of the accuracy of chemical reactions is compromised by these harsh weather conditions. So under normal conditions, plants use a lot of other chemicals to neutralize this free radicals. And some of them are antioxidants. For example, one of the most common antioxidants is a vitamin c. So, in fact, plant is so healthy because plants are rich with antioxidants. So by eating plants, we in some way neutralizing free radicals that are produced in our body. High content of radicals damages useful molecules in the plant body. For example, enzymes involved in photosynthesis. And this, of course, damages, compromises efficiency of carbon dioxide fixation and plant growth and all other processes. So our project aims at mechanisms that impact free radicals and production, and they aim at minimizing damages caused by free radicals to plant health.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so you’re looking for ways to improve these and plants increase the quantity of them. But how are you looking to do that?

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Yeah. So we would like to to find genes that are responsible for more efficient neutralization of free radicals and another way higher production of scavenger molecules and antioxidants.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So if you can identify the genes and the plant, breeders like Mike Pumphrey would be able to move these into into cultivars that would be better adapted to drought then?

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Yeah, absolutely.

Drew Lyon: And do you know, is there a cost to the plant for producing more of these? I’m thinking  some of the things we breed in into plants. I’m thinking of herbicide resistance in weeds. Sometimes that resistance comes at a cost. The plant doesn’t grow quite as much or does some. So if a plant produces more free radicals, do you know, is there a a physiological cost to the plant or not, to your knowledge?

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Yeah, unfortunately, yes. So this is why, despite we knew about the importance of free radicals from plant health for many decades, this mechanism has been exploited in the breed programs. And this is because, indeed, if you simply increase production of antioxidants and the scavenging molecules in plants, it will have a downstream effect on yield because it will divert energy that is necessary for a seed production, for example. So the trick here is to get plant to produce these molecules at the point when they need them most. And this is why determining genes responsible for more efficient or scavenging under control stressful. So tricky because you must identify genes that only work during the heat and drought stress. And this is one of the aspects of our research.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So that’s a different twist on what’s been done before is actually stressing them and looking for what genes turn on.

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And, you know, I’m thinking spring wheat. Is there a reason you work with spring wheat rather than winter wheat or some other plant?

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Yeah, because spring with is most susceptible to the impact of harsh weather. So as you know, a spring with this planted in March and April, depending on the season and then start flowering at the end of May, beginning of June, just when you frequently have heat waves or periods of low precipitation, while a winter wheat has all winter season to develop a root system and kind of establish a plant and then it’s more fit, if you like, to face the harsh environment during the spring and early summer. Unfortunately, spring wheat doesn’t have these mechanisms and so this is why it’s important that we develop spring wheat with this more efficient scavenging and antioxidants production.

Drew Lyon: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. I know when I was in Nebraska, western Nebraska, we had real difficulty getting spring wheat to do anything because it just turned too hot too quickly. So you looked at a spring wheat plant next to a winter wheat plant in, say, late May. And the spring wheat plant looked so healthy and and great you thought, wow, that’s really going to do good. But then the heat came on and the spring wheat just withered and the winter wheat finished, right.

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Yeah.

Drew Lyon: So the official press release from the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research mentions that this project is co-funded by several organizations. Who else supports this research?

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: So indeed, one of the interesting aspects of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is the requirement of contributions from other organizations in the form of so-called matching funding. And there is a very good reason for the system, an interest from other organizations to support our research on this cause its significance. So it’s the list of organizations that provide matching funding for our project includes company LongReach Plant Breeders from Australia, a commodity group from our state Washington Grain Commission, an endowment fund called Orville Vogel Wheat Research Fund at Washington State University and Flinders University in Australia.

Drew Lyon: Okay, Australia, I’ve been there a few times and they do have some heat down there so.

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: A lot, yes, they’re very interested in developing varieties with greater drought resiliency. Very enthusiastic to participate in this program.

Drew Lyon: That’s interesting. So that’s a unique combination of federal private and organizational dollars coming in to support this work. Well, we look forward to having you back on this show in a year or two when you and Dr. Pumphrey have made a little more progress, and you can tell us how that’s working for you. It’s a very interesting research, and I think it’s important research for this part of the world. Thanks, Andre.

Dr. Andrei Smertenko: Thank you very much for joining me today, Drew. And I’m looking forward to meeting you in the future.

[ 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 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 @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.