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Published August 24, 2010, 08:55 AM

Spud research among first in historic complex

FARGO, N.D. — Researchers at North Dakota State University in Fargo are eager to get a piece of a new greenhouse complex, which is a far cry from anything anyone here has used before.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Researchers at North Dakota State University in Fargo are eager to get a piece of a new greenhouse complex, which is a far cry from anything anyone here has used before.

Managing the facility itself is a Julie Hochhalter, from Johnson, Minn., who earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota-Crookston and a master’s degree in entomology from North Dakota State University.

Hochhalter controls the environmental controls and where researchers come in to use space. She makes sure the supplies are there and that the room is controlled to where the researcher wants it. She also coordinates building maintenance and lab space. The facility also includes spray booths and misting facilities.

An ample freight shipping area is provided with a 10-foot-wide elevator lift so that equipment and supplies can be moved with a forklift, on the main floor or in the basement.

“We’ll be able to move scientific equipment anywhere it needs to go or supplies for particular studies wherever they need to go ‘in quantity,’” Coston says.

Each room or “chamber” in the greenhouse complex is individually controlled separately for temperature and humidity. Even light intensity is controlled, using a system of shades that are electronically implemented.

“It’s not supposed to vary by more than 1 degree, anywhere in the room,” Hochhalter says. “In the older facilities, it could vary 15 to 20 degrees, which affects the experiments.”

Instead of the classic overhead heating in greenhouses, this facility has the heating along the walls, with the utilities coming from below. The systems are designed in modules, which will make them easier to replace over the years. Retrofitting will be easier because the systems are specific to each chamber, rather than to a whole “range” of greenhouses.

Hochhalter is provided data from each room, coming into her office every 15 seconds. The data can be retrieved and expressed in different ways so a researcher can determine whether an environmental anomaly might explain an experimental result. There is a weather station on the outside of the greenhouse to offer more complete information — temperature, wind speed and light intensity.

“I am always on call,” Hochhalter says. “If there is a problem where the greenhouse is out of temperature range or, as happened last week, the weather station lost communication, or there’s a high-wind warning, it calls me at home.

“It’s computerized, so I can access it from home. I can look on there and see if I can make an adjustment. In the case of a high-wind warning, I can go log on at 2 a.m. and make sure that the vents are closed and go back to bed. I don’t have to drive here.”

Here is a look at two of the first projects housed in the complex. Both happen to be focused on potatoes.

Potato breeding

Asunta “Susie” Thompson, North Dakota State University potato breeder, on July 23 officially was the first researcher to move into the new NDSU greenhouse laboratory complex. Potato plants transplanted in late July now are vigorous plants and will produce small tubers the size of shooter marbles in about three to four months growing in the greenhouse.

“During the winter we make crosses and create new families by the mechanisms of hybridizing in the greenhouse. We are pollinating one parent and hoping for fruit sets,” she says.

During the typical year, she’ll create 550 to 750 new families.

“A large part of the efforts in the summer and fall are ‘growing out’ these families in order to get the seedling tubers that would be planted at Langdon (N.D.) the following summer. That’s where our initial ‘selections’ would be made,” she says.

NDSU officials decided that, since this is a new facility that needs to be tested, the breeding program would put its most sensitive material — those tiny seedlings — and see what kind of crop they can grow. Initially, Thompson put two red-skinned, white-fleshed cultivars, two that are russets and two potentially good chipping families.

NDSU’s world renowned potato breeding project has been housed in “Range 6” in the old horticulture greenhouses.

“It’s a great space because it’s big and dedicated to the breeding project for the full year,” Thompson says.

But during the summer crop, the program grows 60,000 to 70,000 seedlings a year. In the fall crop, another 30,000 are grown.

“It requires that we use a lot of additional space, including a ‘hoop house’ that the buildings and grounds people at NDSU use to grow the flowers that beautify the campus every year,” she says.

The potato breeding project gets into a lot of areas around the campus where other plants are propagated, some areas are infested with a thrips, and that can carry viruses like Tomato spotted wilt (impatiens necrotic spot) in the potatoes.

With the new space, NDSU’s potato breeding program can be certified for quick shifting from the program to growers, or to its own program for further evaluation, or to NDSU plant pathology programs, or to collaborators around the U.S. In the past, when these viruses have appeared, Thompson has needed to grow them out in a different area or go through a time-consuming “clean-out” process to bring them back into certification.

The rule of thumb is that it takes about 10 years to develop a new variety. More recently, it’s taken up to 20 years, Thompson says, because the industry is “very discerning in the types of attributes they are looking for.” The complex could cut two years off a typical 10-year process of bringing new varieties to market.

Plant pathology

Julie Pasche, doctoral candidate in plant pathology at North Dakota State University, has been working in the facility for nearly a month. Originally from Moorhead, Minn., her education has been at North Dakota State University. Pasche works as a laboratory technician for Neil Gudmestad, a nationally known plant pathologist in potatoes.

Pasche is evaluating eight russet potato cultivars that never have been fully evaluated for resistance to Verticillium wilt (potato early dying) — either the colonization or spread within a plant.

Verticillium dahlia is the main pathogen that causes the disease in U.S. potatoes. The pathogen survives in soil or infected plant parts and invades through the plant’s roots or water-conducting tissue. The disease causes potato vines to prematurely yellow and die.

Pasche has developed a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technique to quantify the pathogen in the plant. She is comparing that technique to traditional plating methods to quantify the pathogen in potato stems not only in the greenhouse trial, but also in the field.

She is sampling up to three times in the growing season to compare the colonization. The research has two primary purposes:

n 1) Evaluate the cultivars for wilt resistance. All were evaluated in their respective breeding programs, but not for colonization.

“We know they don’t express wilt symptoms, but we do not know whether the pathogen is present in those cultivars or if it is truly resistant and does not get colonized by the pathogen,” Pasche says.

n 2) Develop a PCR technique that is much faster than traditional “plating techniques” being used by potato breeders to determine whether breeding material at the seedling stage is resistant to Verticillium as well as determining that amount and spread of any colonization.

“We feel extremely fortunate to take advantage of this new facility,” Pasche says. “We had some disease problems in the old facility that are very difficult to control. We don’t have the extensive amount of control over so many factors we have here.”

The amount of space in the new facility is in itself is a “huge issue” for accomplishing her research, Pasche says. In the old facility, the study used two rooms and the plants were packed in closer than they should have been.

“Here, I have the space,” she says. “As these grow up more, they’ll be inoculated and separated out and randomize within those reps.”

There aren’t differences in environmental conditions — even from one greenhouse room to the next — with temperature, humidity, shade cloths, lighting and other factors all under control.

“Potatoes are grown under a long day length, so we need that day length to simulate our growing conditions. We’re able to do that,” Pasche says. “It’s been fun to be one the guinea pigs here, if you will.”