Pear rootstocks growing in the tissue culture lab.
PHOTOS BY GERALDINE WARNER
A high-tech nursery based in Pullman, Washington, is propagating Washington State University’s new WA 38 apple through tissue culture in anticipation of its commercial release.
Phytelligence holds a propagation license for WA 38, which is one of the first varieties to be released by the university’s apple breeding program. Propagating through tissue culture, starting with explants—small pieces of plant tissue—growing in petri dishes, is a much faster way to produce budwood than the traditional method of growing mother trees in the ground, which can take several years.
Company founder Dr. Amit Dhingra said the lab can produce 80,000 two-foot-high trees within seven months starting from just 500 explants. Those trees can then be used by nurseries as sources of budwood for grafting onto rootstocks.
Washington growers—the only ones who will have access to WA 38—are eager to plant the variety, says Chris Leyerle, chief executive officer at Phytelligence. “I talked to one of the growers who said, ‘If you can give me 100,000 trees of this, I’ll buy them today.’”
Phytelligence was established in 2011 by Dhingra, genomicist with WSU, and group of his graduate students who had developed micropropagation protocols as well as techniques and software for verifying the identity of plants through high-resolution genetic analysis. The protocols were developed initially for research purposes. When Phytelligence was launched, WSU licensed the intellectual property to the company.
Over the past year, the company has been raising funds from investors to hire staff and equip its lab, which is at the WSU Research Foundation’s Research Park. Most of the funding has come from commercial growers and nurseries in the Pacific Northwest. One of the former graduate students, Dr. Tyson Koepke, is now the company’s director of operations.
Leyerle said the company received some donated equipment, allowing the lab to be outfitted for under $100,000.
Each plant the lab produces will go through genetic analysis to ensure that it matches the unique identity specific to the variety and is true to type and will be labeled as such.
“We’re going to test every last tree—no one else does that,” Leyerle said. “You have confidence that what you’re getting is what you ordered. We think that’s very important, from the customers we’ve spoken to.”
Phytelligence also offers genetic analysis for plants it does not produce. For example, it can test plants or rootstocks before they are delivered to nurseries or growers to eliminate the risk of growing the material and finding out later that it is not what it’s supposed to be. Rootstocks developed at Cornell University, New York, have been misidentified a number of times, resulting in nurseries growing the wrong material and delays in getting the new rootstocks to growers (see “Another Geneva mixup”).
“Recent events have highlighted the value we can offer to growers and nurseries,” Leyerle said. “Mixups happen, and plants tend to look the same when they’re very small.”
Genetic analysis can also be done for patent enforcement or patent applications. For example, if the owner of a variety suspects someone is growing it without paying royalties, material can be sampled to ascertain its identity. Or, perhaps someone believes they have discovered a new sport of a variety. Genetic analysis can be done to find out if the new sport is genetically distinct from the original variety.