Snow Mold and Freezing Cold Tolerance with Erika Kruse


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Show Notes & Resources Mentioned:

Contact Information:

Contact Erika Kruse via email at

View Arron Carter’s contact page.

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Episode Transcription:

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Hello, and 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. 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. 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 guest today is Erika Kruse. Erika is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the molecular plant science program in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. She is studying under Dr. Arron Carter, who is the WSU winter wheat breeder, and her research focuses on tolerance to winter conditions in winter wheat, specifically, tolerance to snow mold and freezing cold. Erika came to WSU from Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, where she studied genetics and plant science. Now, she has combined those two subjects in her Ph.D. research. Hello, Erika.

Erika Kruse: Hi there, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Welcome to the Wheat Beat Podcast. Tell us, what is snow mold?

Erika Kruse: [laughs] So snow mold is actually a generic term for a number of different fungal and fungal-like pathogens that can grow on little wheat as it overwinters under the snow.

Drew Lyon: Interesting. So actually looks like mold growing on there, does it?

Erika Kruse: It does.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So sounds like an interesting thing. Why should we care about snow mold?

Erika Kruse: Well, snow mold, in the regions where it is most prevalent, can not only kill off the leaves of the plant but can actually kill off the entire plant itself, which would, of course, render a wheat field not very productive if all of the plants are dead.

Drew Lyon: Very true. So snow mold is 1 thing you study, but you also studied tolerance to freezing temperatures. Why do you look at these two traits in particular?

Erika Kruse: So both of these traits, snow mold and freezing cold tolerance, are most relevant in the winter because snow mold obviously is under snow and freezing temperatures are most prevalent in the winter. In addition to that, the tolerance to both of these two stressors is conferred to a plant primarily during what’s called the cold hardening or acclimation phase when the plants physiologically prepare to go through the winter. The tolerances to both of these are also known to be contributed by accumulation of carbohydrates in a particular part of the wheat, so the crown, which is between the roots and the shoots. And finally, snow cover is important. If you’ve got snow cover, there’s the potential to have snow mold growing on the plants under the snow. But without snow cover, the plants are exposed to ambient temperatures, which can become much colder. And so it’s sort of a double-edged sword whether you have snow cover or not because you can either promote snow mold growth or risk having freezing temperatures.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so basically, the two big threats to wheat during the winter are covered by these two things. Are the tolerances linked or connected, or do you have to look at two separate sets of genes in everything as you look at these tolerances?

Erika Kruse: So that’s what I’m looking into. For one, I have found a region of the genome that is significant in conferring tolerance to both snow mold and freezing, but there are also a lot of individual regions that are unique to the two different traits.

Drew Lyon? So what specific efforts are you undertaking to address these issues and study these traits besides figuring out the genes? Are there– What, as a breeder, do you have to do to try to address these?

Erika Kruse: Right. So we have developed markers. So we have looked for the parts of the genome that are relevant to these traits, and so we have identified markers that are relevant. But I’m also looking at those carbohydrates that I mentioned before, and the accumulation of carbohydrates, and comparing the stores of tolerant plants to the stores in susceptible plants, and so I’m looking to see differences there, especially based on combinations of snow mold tolerance and cold tolerance. So those that are tolerant to both stresses versus one or the other or susceptible to both of them. So I’m making those comparisons as well.

Drew Lyon: So now, I’m curious. How do you measure carbohydrates in a little plant? How do you do that?

Erika Kruse: So what I’ve been doing is I’ve grown up plants in the greenhouse, and then I’ve taken specifically that crown region that I mentioned and extracted the carbohydrates from there. It’s just a wet chemistry ethanol extraction.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Erika Kruse: And then, I run it through an LC, so liquid chromatography, to separate out the sugars and detect the different quantities.

Drew Lyon: So, you know, cold tolerance, I guess a lot of the northern states and Canada probably worry about that, but snow mold, is that as widespread an issue? Is that kind of smaller regions that are interested? I know north of Highway 2 here in Washington, it can be quite an issue. Where else is it an issue?

Erika Kruse: In Washington, the regions are pretty limited. It’s that north of Highway 2 area, and Douglas County is really known for it. Aside from that, it’s not particularly popular or it’s not particularly prevalent in the United States, but there is snow mold in Canada, in Japan, in the Scandinavian countries, in Russia, so a lot of other cold places that either produce wheat or are considering it have snow mold. [laughs]

Drew Lyon: So you’re in your fourth year. How many more years do you have to go, and what’s the end product of your program that you see at this point?

Erika Kruse: Well, in terms of an end product, I’m hoping that my advisor, Arron Carter, will be able to use those markers for tolerance in his breeding program. Also, that we can potentially incorporate quantification of carbohydrates into some sort of a selection mechanism because it’s challenging to select for mold tolerance and cold tolerance in the field. But I’m looking to graduate hopefully this December, but it may not be until spring of 2019.

Drew Lyon: Okay, and then what are your plans?

Erika Kruse: I’m going to take a bit of time off to travel and get an internship, and then I would like to go into horticultural plant breeding. And I’d love to have a role in public outreach and education, so possibly a podcast or something like that.

Drew Lyon: Excellent. Well, we will welcome you to the podcast community when you make it. Thank you very much, Erika.

Erika Kruse: Yeah, thank you.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. If you like what you hear, you can subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. And leave us a review while you’re there. 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 reach out on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. 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.