PENDLETON, Ore. - Growing white wheat is taking on a different meaning this spring in the Columbia Basin of Oregon and Washington. For decades the region's farmers have grown soft white wheat, a type used to make pastries. This spring eye-catching, ghostly white --- but apparently harmless --- "albino" wheat plants are sprouting as they have at mysterious intervals for at least 25 years among the rows of young, green wheat plants that carpet the area at this time of the year.
"Albinos make up less than 1.5 percent of the plants in most of the fields they're in that we've looked at," said Richard Smiley, an Oregon State University plant pathologist with the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center at Pendleton, Ore. "But they really stand out and the number in a field is easily overestimated."
A researcher at the center also has identified albino plants in winter barley.
The albino plants, called that because they don't have an official name, do not seem to affect yield and cause economic damage. They die young and surrounding plants can compensate by growing more vigorously and producing more grain.
But the strange-looking white plants do spark curiosity among farmers and the field representatives who work for agricultural firms.
"I had a few people in my office this week," said Don Wysocki, a soil scientist at Pendleton who works for the OSU Extension Service.
"Some of the more experienced ones recognize what's happening, but newer ones haven't seen the condition before and it can sort of look like the symptoms caused by Russian wheat aphids and some other problems, so they wonder what's going on."
The last time albino plants showed up in significant numbers was three years ago, said Wysocki. The albino phenomenon seems to be linked to temperature and to the planting date for winter grains, which are put in in the fall and harvested the following summer.
"Last year was a mild winter so we didn't see it at all," said Wysocki, "but this year in November it went down to 20 degrees and we had lots of cold weather until February."
The OSU soil scientist said tissue samples of normal and albino plants analyzed during the last significant appearance of the phenomenon identified only one difference: a lower level of the mineral boron in the albinos.
"I investigated the albino plant phenomenon rather intensively back in 1989," said Smiley, the OSU plant pathologist. "We failed to reach any conclusion but did seem to exclude some ideas that had been kicked around."
In 1989, samples were sent to researchers in several disciplines at several universities.
"All of that came back negative," Smiley said. "It appeared that it was not linked a herbicide, to a virus or any disease, to the Russian wheat aphid or to specific seed lots or specific wheat varieties."
People have speculated that cold temperatures and a late fall planting date may trigger a mutant albino gene in some grain plants. Based on his review of scientific literature about studies of albinism in other plants, Smiley does not dismiss this possibility: that an "undocumented genetic and environmental interaction" is the culprit in the Columbia Basin.
For example, in 1998 Chinese botanists studying rice reported that they had learned to create albinism by using temperature variations to "turn off" a chlorophyll synthesis protein. Chlorophyll gives green plant leaves their color.
But the OSU researcher isn't sure nailing down the answer would be worth the effort.
"I believe it would be almost impossible to conduct a full-blown study of this without buying a freezing chamber (a relatively expensive piece of research equipment)," he said, "and with no yield impact I question the economy of doing that. It attracts a lot of attention during the early spring in eastern Oregon and Washington some years, but it doesn't appear to be damaging the crop."