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Dr. Amit Dhingra, genomicist with Washington State University, has set up a new company to produce fruit varieties, rootstocks, and nursery trees faster and cheaper through tissue culture. In addition, the identities of the plants are guaranteed through high-resolution genetic ­fingerprinting.

The company, called Phytelligence, is a spinoff of WSU. Dhingra and six of his graduate students at WSU developed micropropagation protocols as well as the technique and software for accurately verifying the genetic identity of the plantlets they produce.

Dhingra said the protocols were developed initially for research purposes, but when people saw how well they worked, he was encouraged to commercialize them. These new techniques will help get new products out to growers more quickly.

The WSU Research Foundation owns the inventions and is licensing the intellectual property to Phytelligence, which was incorporated last October and is based in Pullman, Washington. The university will receive royalties on sales as well as an ownership stake. Dhingra and his students are also co-owners of Phytelligence along with chief executive officer Chris Leyerle, a former entrepreneur-in-residence at WSU with broad experience in building start-up companies. The role of an entrepreneur-in-residence is to commercialize promising innovations for the ­benefit of the university, investors, and the community.

Better way

Dhingra describes the company as a high-tech nursery that can supply plants to other nurseries or growers. There’s a need in the tree fruit industry for a better way to propagate planting material, whether new rootstocks or varieties that are in the pipeline, he said. “Once you develop a variety, one of the roadblocks for its adoption is having enough numbers for the growers to start growing them.”

The company can propagate several cultivars of apples, cherries, strawberries, and grapes, and expects to extend its techniques to many more.

Growing plants through tissue culture has not always been very successful in the past, Dhingra said. In his work on tissue culture of a wide range of plants, he’s found that the growth medium is one key to successful propagation. Each cultivar requires a specific combination of nutrients and certain environmental conditions. A plantlet can die if the nutrient mix is wrong. In the right mix, it’s possible to grow four cycles of rootstocks in a single season, during the time that a conventional nursery would grow one. Because this is done in a few square feet of greenhouse space, rather than a stool bed, the overheads are lower.

Phytelligence can produce a nursery tree ready for planting in one year, and because the greenhouse environment is sterile and controlled, cleaner and more consistent trees can be produced without fungicides. The trees are well established, free of pests (viruses and ­diseases), and ready to bear fruit.

“We believe it’s possible to produce a higher-quality plantlet in less time and at less cost, using fewer resources, that will have a higher success rate in the field and produce fruit in less time,” Leyerle said.

A shorter time between planting and fruiting means less time between investing in the planting and receiving revenue, he added. “If you shorten that, you change in a fundamental way the economics of the grower. It makes financing simpler—you need less of it—and it takes some of the risk out.”

Genetic fingerprinting

Although genetic fingerprinting has been done before, it has usually been based on comparison of just a few points across the genetic landscape, Dhingra said. He and his students developed a quick and cost-effective method to compare almost the entire genome. The identity of the plant material the company receives for micropropagation is checked on arrival, and the finished product is checked again before delivery.

For variety or rootstock owners, this means they can be sure they are propagating and selling the right product, which reduces their liability.

It would avoid the kind of mixup that Cornell University recently experienced during propagation of the Geneva 214 rootstock. The mixup, which was discovered at Willow Drive Nursery in September, has added a year or more to the time it will take for this highly anticipated rootstock to reach growers’ orchards.

For growers, the genetic testing means they can be sure that every one of the trees they plant is the correct variety, and they won’t need to replace any later, once they’re in the orchard.

For the graduate students involved, it means a rare opportunity. Tyson Koepke, who has been working on tissue culture and micropropagation of sweet cherries and mapping the cherry genome, said it was not something he expected his graduate work to lead to, but it’s been a great experience to be involved in the new company. “For me, the only reason to do research is if it’s going to mean something in the field to the growers and consumers. This is a great avenue to translate this research into something useful.”

The students will continue to study for their degrees while working for the company part-time, but there’s a distinct division between company property and university property, Leyerle stressed.

“Of all the companies I’ve been involved with, this is the best team I have ever seen. I’m incredibly fortunate to have found them. I’m really enthusiastic about what’s already been accomplished and what we expect we will accomplish.”

He expects Phytelligence to have a staff of 25 by 2014, when the company should reach cash-flow–breakeven point, and eventually employ more than 40 people.