Harvesting Ideas and Fruit with Amaya Atucha

In a lab filled with test tubes and microscopes the last thing one may expect to see are grape seeds and cranberry vines. However, this is necessary as Amaya Atucha and her team are studying the cold hardiness of fruit crops to better understand fruit crop physiology and production. Atucha serves in three main roles: an assistant professor in the department of Horticulture, a Fruit Crop Specialist for UW-Extension, and the Gottschalk Chair for cranberry research. Needless to say Atucha is well-versed in the field of fruit crop production, helping to improve the production practices of fruit crops across the state of Wisconsin.

How does the Wisconsin Idea animate your work? As a state specialist with UW Extension my work is basically the implementation of the Wisconsin Idea, in that I conduct research and interpret research from other scholars to help fruit growers across the state. Being part of extension has given me the opportunity to experience how the university can influence peoples live beyond what we see happening on campus, and that is very inspiring and gratifying at the same time.

How has your research and teaching path changed the way you think about Wisconsin and the world? My interaction with colleagues and scientists around the world has given me a broader perspective of the challenges and advantages others face in their work. As an international scholar, moving to Wisconsin has allowed me to experience a completely different culture, and has definitely changed my vision on the role universities can play in their local communities.

One of Amaya's research assistants uses a microscope and camera attached to the microscope to observe the cranberry plantHow does your research tell a larger story about Wisconsin and the world? My research program focuses on fruit crop physiology and production of deciduous fruit crops; with cranberries being one of the main fruit crops I study. Wisconsin is the top producer of cranberries in the world, and UW-Madison is the place where most of the research on this fruit crop takes place. UW-Madison has an impressive group of researchers working on all aspects of cranberry production and we are definitely the main source of information on this crop worldwide.

Is there a fact about cranberries that tends to amuse or surprise people? Yes, that cranberries do not grow in water! Most people associate cranberry production with the images they see on the television, where the growers are harvesting the berries from a pool full of water, so people think that’s the way they grow. Cranberry beds, which are the production unit in a cranberry marsh, are flooded to harvest the fruit because it makes it easier to collect all the berries, but once the harvest is done the beds are drained.

What do you love about the University of Wisconsin-Madison? There are so many possibilities to connect and collaborate with great scientists and faculty from other disciplines around campus. To be part of a diverse community of scholars stimulate you to create innovative approaches to complex problems.

What or who inspires you? My amazing female colleagues who have successful careers and family lives.

Amaya opens small containers that contain frozen grape seeds

What has been one of your favorite courses to teach? I have a very limited teaching appointment; I teach Fruit Crop Production every other spring semester. I really enjoy teaching this class as it has an important field component where students can interact with fruit growers in the state and learn about the socioeconomic implication fruit production has in the state of Wisconsin.

What are three books that have influenced you? Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes; The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben; When Breath Becomes Airby Paul Kalanithi

Atucha earned her B.S. in horticulture from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (Chile) and her Ph.D. in horticulture from Cornell University. She also participated in the 2015 Wisconsin Idea Seminar and served as a context expert and collaborator for the 2017 Wisconsin Idea Seminar.

This article first appeared in https://wiseminar.wisc.edu/harvesting-ideas-and-fruit-with-amaya-atucha/

Jeff Endelman Recognized with ARS Award

From left to right:
Jeff Endelman (Horticulture) – Research Award
Jeff Booth (Arlington ARS) – ARS Staff Award
Mike Peters (ARS Director)
Margaret Hoffman (Risk Management) – Service Award
Debbie Beich (Risk Management) – Service Award

Jeff Endelman received the Research Award at this year’s Agricultural Research Stations annual Recognition Awards Reception and Dinner.  Other winners included Debbie Beich, Margaret Hoffman and Jeff Booth.

Potato Specimens Transferred to Wisconsin State Herbarium

When David Spooner’s elementary school teacher assigned the class to collect leaves, she didn’t tell the students the names of the trees. That didn’t sit well with the fourth-grader.

So Spooner went and found the names himself.

He’s been finding names ever since — whether of sunflowers, or potatoes, or carrots. As a U.S. Department of Agriculture taxonomist in the horticulture department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Spooner is charged with traveling the world to gather plant specimens that could be useful to plant breeders and then carefully organizing the plants by their relatedness, providing order to tangled family trees.

Herbarium samples of pressed potato plants prepared for transfer from the potato genebank in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, to the Wisconsin State Herbarium on the UW–Madison campus. Photo: Ken Cameron.

At the end of October, Spooner transferred a large collection of potato specimens in the form of pressed plants that he and others collected around the Americas from the U.S. Potato Genebank in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, to the Wisconsin State Herbarium housed in Birge Hall on the UW–Madison campus. In the coming years, Spooner will wind down his tenure on campus by re-classifying the specimens according to his most recent catalog of potato species. The donation is a significant boon for the 1.3 million-specimen herbarium on campus.

“What makes the herbarium samples valuable is that they cover the majority of the potato species diversity,” says Spooner, who arranged the transfer of the samples from federal to state property.

For decades, Spooner’s specialty has been the potato family. Spooner’s search for samples of wild and domesticated potato specimens has taken him from the southwestern United States down through Central America to Chile. In recent years, as he has been reassigned by the USDA to focus on carrots, he’s traveled to the western Mediterranean, including Tunisia, Spain and Morocco. The seeds he collects and stores are known as germplasm, and are invaluable to plant breeders.

“The purpose of the germplasm collections is to be useful breeding stock to improve disease resistance or agronomic traits like productivity and color,” says Spooner.

But Spooner isn’t a breeder. His passion is deciphering how closely related plant species are separated from and related to one another. To do that, Spooner has to reevaluate the list of different species handed down to him from earlier potato experts.  In a trilogy of monographs, which are exhaustive accounts of a family of plants, Spooner has whittled down the accepted number of different potato species from 235 to 111.

This major reordering of an important crop family was based on his access to new types of data that his predecessors didn’t have. While he relies on increasingly large troves of genomic data, Spooner still turns to the plant taxonomist’s trusted source: morphology. The shape, size and organization of different plant parts not only help tease apart different species, but are also crucial to categorizing real plants — DNA just doesn’t jump out from a pressed plant sample.

“I’ve gone through my career looking at both morphology and DNA. And in both of these datasets, things keep falling together. So I haven’t been able to separate previously distinct species reliably,” Spooner says of his work to pare down the number of potato species. “The early taxonomists didn’t have access to the mountain of resources that I’ve had.”

Spooner attributes a lot of his productivity to the people and resources of the university.

“We’ve got some of the best people in the world here. It’s a great place to work, because of the infrastructure: libraries, field facilities, the Biotechnology Center, the intellectual capital. It makes this place unbelievable,” he says.

As he’s increased his focus on carrots, Spooner has collaborated with UW–Madison horticulture professor and fellow USDA scientist Phil Simon. Simon’s group recently sequenced the carrot genome, providing Spooner with a baseline of data to help him organize carrots the way he has potatoes.

Ken Cameron, the director of the Wisconsin State Herbarium, says that the potato specimens Spooner brought to campus emphasize the value of wild relatives in efforts to improve our most important crops.

“There is a growing concern for loss of diversity in our food crops, and a renewed interest by citizens in growing heirloom vegetable varieties,” says Cameron. “These priceless museum specimens are a reminder that such diversity ultimately stems from wild plant species that are even more variable and vulnerable than their domesticated descendants.”

This article was originally published on the UW–Madison News website.

2017 AAS Winner Started at UW Horticulture

The pepper variety named  Aji Rico F1 has been selected as a 2017 All-America Selections (AAS) Winner.

Bred by PanAmerican Seed (Ball), the variety originated in the lab of Jim Nienhuis, Professor in the Department of Horticulture.

Aji Rico is the first of its kind: a hybrid hot pepper from the Capsicum baccatum species that matures early for short-season production or early summer enjoyment. The large plant produces many thin-walled, crunchy fruits which have a narrow conical shape. Fruit matures from green to red and can be eaten at any stage. “Ají” is the term for chili in South America. These fruits have a refreshing citrus flavor and warm heat level, perfect for eating fresh or cooking into salsas or hot sauces. Simply incorporate the desired number of seeds from the pepper to add some heat. Aji also dries well for a flavorful homemade flavorful “paprika.”

All-America Selections is the oldest independent testing organization of flower and edible varieties in North America. AAS Selections have been tested for garden performance by a panel of expert judges. Varieties that perform best over all of North America become AAS National Winners.

Colquhoun Recognized at Chancellor’s Award Ceremony

Jed Colquhoun, horticulture professor and interim Associate Dean for Extension and Outreach, and Heidi Zoerb, Associate Dean for External Relations and Advancement, were part of a team that was recently recognized at the UW Colleges and UW-Extension Chancellor’s Award ceremony on Thursday, Sept. 21 in Madison.

Along with fellow UW-Extension Integration Work Group members Amber Canto, John deMontmollin, Carrie Edgar, Jeff Hoffman, Greg Johll, Julie Keown-Bomar, Karl Martin, Patrick Robinson and Ruth Schriefer, Colquhoun and Zoerb received the Award for Excellence, which recognizes the outstanding performance of an individual or group in any of several areas, including outstanding contributions to the UW Colleges or UW-Extension missions or strategic priorities, sustained excellence in providing support, the development of innovative programs, outstanding teaching, successful programming or exceptional efforts to build public support for UW Colleges or UW-Extension.

“UW Colleges and UW-Extension employees and partners work statewide to provide innovative education and services to students, business owners, farmers and citizens in every industry across Wisconsin,” said Cathy Sandeen, UW Colleges and UW-Extension Chancellor. “The Chancellor’s Awards recognize those individuals who’ve gone above and beyond in extending our mission to every corner of the state.”

Atucha Receives Alfred Toepfer Faculty Fellow Award

Atucha’s research focuses on fruit crop physiology and production of deciduous fruit crops (cranberry, apple and grapes in particular). Her current research areas include cold hardiness of fruit crops, improving fruit quality of cold hardy wine grapes through cultural practices and differences in root growth rates of rootstocks as affected by soil borne pathogens. She is also a UW-Extension fruit crop specialist.

The one-year award is bestowed on pre-tenure faculty whose research benefits agricultural activities within the United States and whose areas of interest lie in the scientific fields of crop research, improvements in crop yield and quality, or animal sciences. The award can also go to faculty members whose agricultural research is considered biological or physical in nature.

Dr. Yi Wang Joins the Department

Yi Wang is an assistant professor with a research focus on potato and vegetable sustainable production. The goal of her research and extension program is to conduct science-based applied research and collaborate with the potato and vegetable growers and processors to improve the resource use efficiency and sustainability of vegetable cropping systems in Wisconsin. Her major research areas are:

  • Investigate new irrigation technologies to improve the water-use sustainability of vegetable cropping systems;
  • Develop production recommendations for new varieties with higher water and nitrogen use efficiency;
  • Develop useful growth modelling tools to predict crop yield, quality, water balance, and nitrogen balance.

Yi got her B.S. in Biological Science from Nanjing Agricultural University in China, her Ph.D. in Potato Physiology from UW-Madison. She worked as an assistant professor at the Kimberly Research and Extension Center, University of Idaho before rejoining the Department of Horticulture at UW-Madison.

Winemaking In Wisconsin

How Discoveries And Accidents Led To Winemaking In Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s wine industry is modest in scale, but has roots as old as the state itself. A Hungarian immigrant named Agoston Haraszthy planted the state’s first vineyard in 1846 on the east bank of the Wisconsin River and founded the community that would become Sauk City. He headed west three years later, establishing the famous Buena Vista Vineyard in Seminole, California, and became known as the father of Californian winemaking. In Wisconsin, Haraszthy’s vineyard lands would later become the site of Wollersheim Winery.

The wines produced in Wisconsin’s unlikely climate are the result of centuries of selection, cultivation and hybridization of many grape varieties, said Amaya Atucha, a fruit crop specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension and assistant professor of horticulture at UW-Madison. With only 80 to 180 frost-free days across different parts of the state in an average year, Wisconsin’s cold climate and soil pH is not particularly hospitable to many wine grapes. Atucha discussed the history and difficulties of viticulture in the state in a July 8, 2015 talk for the Wednesday Nite @ the Lab lecture series on the UW-Madison campus, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television’s University Place.

“It’s very challenging to grow grapes here,” Atucha said. “And this has been a lot of science and a lot of discoveries and accidents that have taken us through this journey to be able to have Wisconsin wine.”

Variants of a grape species first cultivated in western Asia thousands of years ago, Vitis vinifera, are grown to produce 99 percent of the world’s wine today. While male and female flowers grow separately on wild grapes, Vitis vinifera was bred to have what are called perfect flowers, which have reproductive structures for both sexes. This morphology greatly increases fruit yield, supplying enough juice to produce wine.

Many grape species are native to the Americas, including Vitis riparia, Vitis berlandieri and Vitis labrusca. Wine production did not begin in the Western Hemisphere until the 1500s, though, when Spanish conquistadors and missionaries planted vineyards in hospitable regions using cuttings of Vitis vinifera. The lower fruit yields of North American grape species proved unfavorable for wine production, and the flavors of their wines discouraged cultivation for that purpose.

“For me, coming from Chile, never having these grapes… [i]t just tasted very chemical, like this foxy taste,” Atucha said of her first experience with juice made from Concord grapes, which is cultivated from Vitis labrusca, and left her believing the taste was artificial.

“Afterwards, they took me to a vineyard where there was Concord grapes and they gave me some of the grapes to taste, and I was like ‘wow, it tastes just like the juice,'” she said.

Much of North America is inhospitable to Vitis vinifera, leading to failed attempts at establishing vineyards in the British colonies along the Atlantic Seaboard during the 1600s and 1700s. European grapes faltered in the climate, and they were also more susceptible to insects and disease American grape species had evolved to resist.

It was not until the 1740 discovery of the Alexander grape in Philadelphia that North American wine production became feasible. A natural hybrid, this variety combined the hermaphroditic flowering traits of Vitis vinifera with the hardiness of a native species. The new, viable variety sparked an interest in hybridization, resulting in grapes capable of flourishing and producing wine in Wisconsin a century later.

“So the solution to the problem was actually not to try to make the vinifera grow, but to find a grape that would survive, that would yield enough, and that would make wine decent enough that they could sell and that people could drink,” Atucha said.

 

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Key Facts

    • Modern viticulture has its roots in the soils of the southern Caucasus Mountains, a region that now includes portions of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and northern Iran and Iraq. The first evidence of wine production dates to around 7,000 years ago, when the burgeoning viticulturists of the Neolithic era found particularly fruitful Vitis vinifera vines, grew these grapes along the shores of the Caspian and Black seas, and began fermenting the juice. Viticulture spread to Mesopotamia, Egypt and on to regions around the Mediterranean.
    • Over time and through trade, the rise of the Roman Empire and the growth of Christianity, Vitis vinifera eventually found a new, favorable climate in the high pH soils of southern Europe. Romans advanced grape cultivation and wine production, but the monks of the medieval Catholic Church developed many of the techniques used in the present day.
    • While Native Americans fermented fruits like apples and other plants to produce alcoholic beverages, there is no archeological evidence to suggest grapes were used to produce wine, despite the fruit’s prevalence in North America.
    • In the 1620s, King James I declared wine production mandatory in Virginia. He sought to supplement supplies from France, Italy and Spain by meeting the growing British taste for wine with a domestic product, so as to lessen dependence on imports from these rival nations.
    • Several North American wild grape species contributed to the hybridization of Vitis vinifera. Vitis riparia, found from Canada to Texas and between the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, is cold hardy and resistant to fungus and disease. Vitis berlandieri, native to central Texas and eastern Mexico, grows well in high pH soils and aids in breeding of grapes for a variety of soil types. Vitis rupestri, a nearly extinct species, lent disease and fungal resistance to some modern varieties. And Vitis labrusca is a vigorous vine known as the Northern Fox Grape; its cold hardy variants have a distinct flavor, the Concord grape the most famous among them.
    • New Englander Ephraim Bull created the Concord grape, named for his hometown in Massachusetts, after testing millions of seedlings and selecting based on desired traits. The grape’s distinct, sour taste makes it a popular choice for jams, jellies and juices, but aficionados generally consider it an undesirable flavor for wine.
    • The eventual success of wine grape cultivation in the United States led to the export of North American hybrids to Europe in the mid-1800s. European botanists sought to study and collect these varieties, but unintentionally introduced diseases and pests like the grape phylloxera, devastating the continent’s grape vines. Nearly 90 percent of European vineyards collapsed, and wine production fell to 20 percent of previous levels. Although hybrids were the source of the invasive species, they were also key in ending the 20-year die-off; Vinis vinifera was grafted on to North American root stock, maintaining the properties of European varieties with the resistance of imported hybrids.
    • Scientists play a role in contemporary viticulture. While working for a University of Minnesota grape breeding program, Wisconsin native Elmer Swenson developed a number of cold resistant varieties that also produce good wine, releasing many to the public upon his retirement in 1980. More recently, the Northern Grapes Project is a collaboration between a dozen Midwestern and Northeastern universities that seeks to develop new varieties and growing techniques that work well in colder climates.

WisContext produced this article as a service of Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and Cooperative Extension.

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Collaboration with Wunk Sheek (Native student association)

Professor Irwin Goldman, along with undergraduate assistant Iszie Tigges-Green, recently grew and harvested tobacco plants from seeds provided by Jeff Metoxen of Oneida Farm. The plants were germinated in Goldman’s greenhouse and then transplanted to the West Madison Agricultural Research Center.

Patty Loew, Professor in the Department of Life Sciences communication was instrumental in organizing the collaboration.  Student members of Wunk Sheek will save the seeds to plant again this year. The impetus for the project was and is to grow tobacco to be used as a gift to elders and tribal partners when UW-Native nations collaborations take place.

WPVGA Researcher of the Year

Dr. Jeff Endelman, Assistant Professor in the UW Dept. of Horticulture received the Researcher of the Year award at the recent at the recent Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association meeting held February 8, 2017, in Stevens Point.  Dr. Endelman has an emphasis on potato breeding and genetics. He brings a unique set of skills and experiences to his position, including two sets of advanced degrees. First, he earned degrees in physics and bioengineering. Then, after participating in a Community Supported Agriculture program, he fell in love with farming and completed two year-long apprenticeships on small farms in California. This inspired him to go back to earn a Master’s Degree in Plant Science from Utah State University and a Ph.D. in Crop Science from Washington State University.

At the University of Wisconsin, a major focus of Jeff’s research and extension program is to produce improved potato varieties. In recent years, Jeff’s research has helped Wisconsin release several outstanding varieties including Red Endeavor, Oneida Gold and Hodag. Jeff has also been instrumental in making improvements to the Rhinelander Agricultural Research Station as well as the SpudPro commercialization program.