New Plant Breeding and Genetics Program Created, Offers Undergraduate Option

plant breeding
Oregon State University's vast network of plant breeders has been working quietly (and, in most cases, independently) for years, improving horticultural, food and animal feed crops, forestry products, ornamental plants, and more. Individual researchers collaborated and the creation of a formal program was discussed many times before, but there never was a united, university-wide effort focused on plant breeding—until now.

"We finally just said, 'we've got to do this!'" explained Patrick Hayes, professor, barley breeder and director of the new Plant Breeding and Genetics Program at Oregon State.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

barley rootsNow for the first time, many faculty across campus in groups such as Botany and Plant Pathology, the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing, Crop and Soil Science and Horticulture are focusing their research on five primary challenges related to plant breeding for adaptation to change.

Through a USDA NIFA collaborative megaproject, plant breeding faculty are looking at ways in which they can collaborate to solve problems by improving plants. Three challenge areas were identified: plant problems posed by climate change, ways plants can aid in obesity management and human nutrition, and food safety through better plants. In addition, faculty will explore secondary challenges in animal nutrition and health and energy production.

Plant Breeding with a Purpose

The group plans to work on improving a variety of crops and plants, including grains such as wheat and barley, vegetables and fruits like grapes, tomatoes and crucifers and plants whose seeds can be used to create biofuel, like flax. 

Ryan Contreras, assistant professor, ornamental plant breeder and associate director of the program, plans to work on increasing spider mite resistance in arborvitae, which are small coniferous trees commonly used in landscapes. He also is focusing on breeding a lilac suitable for growing in the Willamette Valley.

"The cold, wet spring provides a perfect opportunity for for Lilac Blight, caused by Pseudomonas syringae, to flourish in lilacs," he explained. Creating a lilac that's resistant to pseudomonas can lead to a new, popular product for Oregon's nursery industry.

The result of all his research, Contreras hopes, is more resilient plants, including economically important nursery crops grown here in Oregon.

Collaboration with Students

In addition, a Plant Breeding and Genetics degree option has been approved, so undergraduates can now elect to focus their degree on plant breeding and genetic analysis, through either a B.S. in Horticulture or a B.S. in Crop and Soil Science. Through the Plant Breeding and Genetics degree option, students gain practical experience from the field or greenhouse to the lab.

The first Plant Breeding and Genetics-designated (PBG) classes are being taught this fall, including the popular PBG 620 DNA Fingerprinting, which teaches students how to find the differences in DNA in a single plant variety.

"Even if the DNA sequence of plant species is 99.9% identical," said Alfonso Cuesta-Marcos, an assistant professor who is currently teaching DNA Fingerprinting, "there are some plants that are tall, some that have a better agronomic yield and some that have more resistance to a disease. We assume that these qualities are found in the slight variation in DNA sequence. These variations are a plant's DNA fingerprints."

DNA Fingerprinting is part of a three-class module that includes PBG 621 Genetic Mapping and PBG 622 Mapping of Quantitative Trait Loci. This class series trains students to extract information from DNA sequences and apply that information to improving the plant. Cuesta-Marcos considers the class module essential for those interested in graduate study in plant breeding.

In the future, graduate students seeking an M.S. or a Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Genetics will be able to elect this option. Hayes anticipates the graduate program to be approved and faculty to be ready to accept students into their research programs by fall 2014.

By combining a new research program with a degree-visible option, the Plant Breeding and Genetics program hopes to capitalize on the increased efficiencies and the collegiality of students and faculty working closely together to solve problems. Also industries such as seed production, biotech firms and nurseries actively recruit recently graduates with experience breeding plants and performing genetic analysis, creating a demand for graduates with fundamental knowledge and skills in breeding plants.

"Students will come out of the PBG program having experience in DNA extraction, running gels, making crosses, developing field plans, and more," says Contreras. "There's no shortage of opportunities for hands-on learning."