Relay for Wheat

If wheat breeding were a relay race, the land grant all-star team would include Foote, Kronstad, Peterson and now Zemetra

When he was a college student, Bob Zemetra found the perfect career. “I liked working with plants, and I realized that in plant breeding — in theory — I could be outside in the good part of the year and inside in the bad part of the year.” Things didn’t turn out that way, he laughs. “I discovered with winter wheat, I’m planting in rain and snow, and I’m out taking data in rain.”

Robert Zemetra leads Oregon State's wheat-breeding program. (Photo courtesy of Robert Zemetra)

Robert Zemetra leads Oregon State's wheat-breeding program. (Photo courtesy of Robert Zemetra)

Still, the Oregon State University wheat breeder doesn’t regret his decision to create new plant varieties for a living. “Between getting to teach, working with students at a university and doing the wheat breeding, I can’t think of a better job,” he says.

Wheat growers have gotten a good deal too. Since 1993 when he was a professor at the University of Idaho, Zemetra has led the development of nine new strains of soft white winter wheat. In more than two decades of wheat-variety improvement, efforts by him and his colleagues have enabled farmers to produce more grain and earn more money as they’ve supplied products to millers, bakers and even noodle makers in the United States and abroad.

It’s the kind of achievement the architects of the land grant university system envisioned when they passed the Morrill Act 150 years ago. When he signed the bill into law, President Abraham Lincoln called public universities an investment of the people’s hope, support and confidence. (For details on the political history of the Morrill Act, see Milestones in the Legislative History of U.S. Land-Grant Universities)

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Zemetra takes that mission seriously. “Our primary thrust is to improve the productivity of wheat cultivars, so we improve profitability for wheat growers,” he says.

Matchmaker

In 2011, the native of California’s San Fernando Valley accepted the endowed Warren Kronstad Wheat Research Chair at Oregon State. He followed in the footsteps of former OSU wheat breeder James Peterson who is now vice president for wheat research at Limagrain Cereals in Colorado.

As a researcher, Zemetra is matchmaker, data collector and analyst. He marries existing wheat strains to produce stronger offspring that resist disease and thrive in Northwest soils and climate. He evaluates new varieties for traits such as their ability to resist disease (stripe rust, Pseudocercosporella foot rot and Septoria leaf blotch, among others), straw strength (will plants remain standing in a stiff Northwest wind?) and grain quality.

“You can think of disease resistance as a form of insurance to prevent loss,” he says. “Losses can occur through lost yield because of disease, or if farmers have to pay for fungicide treatment. It’s an ongoing battle.”

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One of his primary adversaries is a tiny fungus, Puccinia striiformis, which causes a disease known as stripe rust. On wheat leaves, the organism erupts into orange blisters and diverts the plant’s energy from making grain to the care and feeding of more fungus. It reduces grain production and can kill plants outright. Moreover, it can evolve rapidly, creating a moving target for researchers who need to make sure that wheat varieties have the right genetic characteristics to stay ahead of the disease.

Front Lines

Stephens wheat, a popular variety introduced by legendary OSU wheat breeder Warren Kronstad in 1978, was highly resistant to stripe rust, but in 2000, the fungus evolved new races, Zemetra explains. Stephens became partially susceptible and gave way to other varieties such as Foote (named for Oregon State’s first wheat breeder, Wilson Foote), Goetze (particularly useful in the Willamette Valley) and ORCF 101 and ORCF 102, herbicide resistant Oregon State cultivars, which now dominate wheat acreage in Oregon and Washington.

“Disease resistance is being overcome a little faster in some lines. Some races (of the fungus) are more aggressive. The challenge is making sure we have resistant lines for the growers. We’d like to reduce their use of fungicides,” says Zemetra.

Maintaining wheat production is a collective effort. Zemetra’s breeding research proceeds as a cadre of scientists on the OSU campus in Corvallis and at OSU Agricultural Experiment Stations and Extension offices test new varieties in small plots and work directly with farmers to evaluate plant performance under commercial growing conditions.

The quality of new varieties released to the industry can be measured by the traffic on Zemetra’s phone. “Farmers aren’t shy. If I release a variety that’s good, I don’t receive many phone calls,” he says. “If anything goes wrong, I hear about it right away.”

Fortunately, his first year at Oregon State turned out pretty well. In 2011, Oregon wheat growers achieved their highest yield per acre (81 bushels) and highest revenues ($521.5 million) ever. Collecting data in the rain had a silver lining for the new OSU scientist.

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