Researching the How and Why of Low Falling Numbers with Dr. Ashley Cannon


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For questions or comments, contact Ashley via email at or find her on Twitter @smashleycannon.

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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 guest today is Dr. Ashley Cannon. Ashley is a Research Molecular Biologist with the USDA-ARS. She is the newest member of the Falling numbers team and is starting her lab this fall. Her research program focuses on wheat grain development and physiology. In particular, she is interested in identifying the underlying mechanisms that lead to low falling numbers in wheat. In addition to her research, Ashley is also an active member of the American Society of Plant Biologists. She is the head of the internal communications for the early career plant scientist section and the early career representative on the education committee. Hello Ashley.

Ashely Cannon: Hi Drew, thanks for having me.

Drew Lyon: Thanks for coming and introducing yourselves to our audience. Prior to joining the USDA-ARS what was the focus of your work?

Ashely Cannon: So I would say that my research career really started as an undergraduate researcher where I primarily focused on root growth and development. And during my graduate studies, I kind of expanded that to look at how gravity affects plant growth and development. So kind of focused on gravitropism and a lot of my work was funded by NASA, kind of in an effort to understand how plants grow and develop in the space environment.

Drew Lyon: Oh, interesting.

Ashely Cannon: So, I then went on to do a post-doc that was more focused on plant cell signaling, and during my post-doc I focused on identifying the molecular targets and actions of a class of lipid signaling molecules called the N-acylethanolamines and their role in early development and growth in Arabidopsis.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And you did this work where?

Ashely Cannon: So my graduate work was done at the University of Texas at Austin and then my post-doc I did at the University of North Texas in Denton.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, welcome to the Palouse and the Pacific Northwest, I think you’ll see it’s somewhat different [ laughter ].

Ashely Cannon: For sure.

Drew Lyon: Much of Texas. But very delightful. Your new lab is focused on identifying what leads to low falling numbers and that’s been a real issue here in the Pacific Northwest on and off, depending on the year. Can you briefly describe the falling numbers test and why you’re focused on what leads to low falling numbers?

Ashely Cannon: Sure, so I’ll definitely put a plug in here for a couple of earlier episodes featuring Kim Campbell and Camille Steber and just kind of very briefly talk about the falling numbers test. So this test measures the structural integrity of starch and wheat grain and the falling numbers, actually, the amount of time in seconds it takes for a stirrer to fall through a gravy that’s made from a wheat and flour mixture that has been heated and stirred. And the term low falling numbers is kind of derived from the fact that when alpha-amylase is present in this mixture, it’ll actually chop up that starch into shorter chains and decrease the gelling capacity of that gravy, which then of course decreases the time it takes for that stirrer to fall through the gravy, leading to a lower falling number. So, I’m interested as you mentioned early on, in determining the mechanisms that actually lead to the accumulation of alpha-amylase and other hydrolytic enzymes during wheat grain development or pre-harvest sprouting that ultimately lead to these low falling numbers.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so you mentioned Kim and Camille and they’ve really done a lot of work and will put some links to those podcasts on your show notes here. You’ll be working with them, but you’ll be taking it a little more in-depth than what they have been able to do in their positions up to now.

Ashely Cannon: Yes. So you know, I think in the previous episode you heard from Camille and she is more of a research geneticist, so her major goal is to map the late maturity alpha-amylase and the pre-harvest sprouting resistance genes. And you know, as a team, our goal is to really improve our ability to breed for stable falling numbers in the wheat varieties grown up here. But I’m more of a research molecular biologist so I would say I’m looking at the how and why of what leads to low falling numbers. And so the major goals of my lab would be to you know, identify any new or novel hydrolytic enzymes that are contributing to low falling numbers and, of course, confirming what we already know. And then using that knowledge to determine what actually leads to the accumulation of these hydrolytic enzymes. And then also kind of expanding on that and using that knowledge to contribute to the effort that is currently underway to develop new tests for the presence of alpha-amylase and to actually differentiate between the two conditions that lead to low falling numbers which is pre-harvest sprouting and late maturity alpha-amylase. And so I guess if you wanted to relate my work to Camille, my work will help determine perhaps how and why the genes that he finds are actually contributing to resistance to these two conditions.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So you’ll have a real nice little pipeline, you’re working at the molecular functional level and then Camille, actually even before functional, and then Camille will understand the genetics and Kim will be able to take that, hopefully, and use that in her breeding program as well as the other wheat breeders here.

Ashely Cannon: Yeah, I think that’s exactly what we’re hoping to do as a team, kind of develop this pipeline.

Drew Lyon: And you’ll be located in the Western Wheat Quality Lab? Or where is your lab going to be?

Ashely Cannon: So I’m actually in Vogel and my lab is connected to Kim and Camille’s lab.

Drew Lyon: Okay, very good. So in addition to your research, you had a couple of leadership positions that I mentioned in your introduction in the American Society of Plant Biologists. Can you tell us more about ASPB, the American Society of Plant Biologists, and your roles in this professional society?

Ashely Cannon: Sure. So the American Society of Plant Biologists is a professional society that really promotes the growth and development of the field of plant biology. They do have some efforts to kind of encourage and publish research in the field, but what I think we all benefit from most is that they promote the interest, growth, and education of plant scientists. And I’ve been a member actually since I was an undergraduate researcher, but most recently I’ve really been involved in the newest section, which is the early career plant scientist section. And what we’re hoping to do is provide opportunities and to provide a voice to the early career members of the society. And I’m also involved in the education community because I’m really passionate about teaching and outreach and I’ve recently been involved in an effort to put together short videos that will be posted to YouTube to teach anyone across, you know, the globe about topics and plant biology.

Drew Lyon: Okay, maybe we can get links to some of those videos that we can put in the show notes so people can see what you’re doing. Just kind of a side, what do you find most interesting or different so far? I know you’ve only been here a couple of weeks, but moving from Texas up to Pullman, any particular thing catches your attention?

Ashely Cannon: Well I have to say the weather has been really lovely. I am a runner and so I can get out and run at any time of the day which is really amazing. You know, in Texas I had to wake up really early to get a run in, whereas here [ laughter ]. And the scenery is beautiful. So, you know, every time I go out for a run it’s kind of amazing how beautiful the view is almost anywhere in this town.

Drew Lyon: And it’s easy to get a hill workout in [ laughter ].

Ashely Cannon: Very, that’s something new [ laughter ].

Drew Lyon: Well I appreciate you coming onto the WSU Wheat Beat podcast and introducing yourself to our audience and we look forward to seeing what things you do. Do you have a website yet where people can go to find this information? Or do you intend to build a site where people can come and see what you’re doing?

Ashely Cannon: Yes, I do intend to build a website, and as I have that information I can definitely share it with your listeners

Drew Lyon: Excellent. Thank you very much, Ashley.

Ashely Cannon: Thank you.

[ 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 –( 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.