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Dan Bernardo

As part of its strategy to become a leader in horticultural genomics, Washington State University has hired two scientists to augment its program.

The university planned to create one faculty position, but ended up hiring two of the candidates: Dr. Amit Dhingra, previously with the University of Florida, and Dr. Cameron Peace from the University of California, Davis.

Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, said the search committee, of which he was a member, thought the two candidates were so outstanding that WSU should consider hiring both of them. The two scientists have skill sets that are complementary, he said.

Dr. Dan Bernardo, dean of WSU’s College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, said they will focus on genomics of tree fruit crops and work closely with WSU’s apple and cherry breeding programs to make the breeding process faster and more efficient. Dr. Matt Whiting heads the cherry breeding program at Prosser, and Dr. Bruce Barritt runs the apple breeding program in Wenatchee.

The university considers tree fruit genomics a priority, Bernardo said. The goal is to develop the type of high quality products that will enable the tree fruit industry to compete in the global market.

Great need

“There may be no other industry in the state of Washington that needs WSU agricultural research as much as the tree fruit industry right now,” he said. “Clearly, there’s tremendous opportunity in the industry, and there are considerable threats facing the industry. I think in addressing the opportunities and the threats, one of the keys is going to be developing functional genomics programs that can be proactive in developing varieties that meet the demands of the consumer.”

In 2005, the university hired bioinformaticist Dr. Dorrie Main. Her job is to analyze and store information from the research community about the location, function, and interaction of genes in rosaceous plants. Both new scientists will be based in Pullman, but will work closely with the fruit breeding programs in Prosser and Wenatchee.

Bernardo said the university would not have been able to create two positions without the financial support of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which will help pay the salary of the second position for two years until WSU can find other funding sources. The position is in an initiative that the university will present to the Washington State legislature for funding next session.

The university will request more than $10 million for the 2007-2008 biennium for its Initiative for Food and Agriculture, which focuses on enhancing WSU’s overall research and extension capacity. It will build on existing programs, fill gaps that have resulted from budget recessions and cutbacks over the past decade, and fund emerging needs, such as the horticultural genomics program and variety development. Bernardo said WSU is committed to having a world-class tree fruit genomics program, whether or not the initiative is funded.

“We’re working towards focusing our resources on key programs that we want to excel in,” he said. “Tree fruit horticulture and tree fruit genomics are areas that are very, very important to us.”

Bernardo said though the initiative will be included in WSU’s budget request, it is not just WSU’s initiative. “It’s the agricultural community’s initiative as well. It was formed with them and addresses their needs. It’s not our shopping list. It’s one that’s been carefully crafted with them as 100-percent partners, and it addresses all the dimensions of our diverse ag industry.”