WSU Professor’s Start-Up Improves Fruit Tree Growth, Saves Water

By Richard Springer | India West

One of “coolest parts” of his job, Amit Dhingra, associate professor of horticultural genomics and biotechnology in the molecular plant sciences graduate program at Washington State University, told India-West, “is to work with farmers directly.”

Head of the horticultural genomics laboratory at WSU in Pullman, the Indian American botanist said that a constant complaint he hears from local farmers and nurseries in Washington state is the financial disaster that ensues when they find out, sometimes years after planting, that the rootstocks they ordered were not what they thought.

Growers have to rip out rows and rows of fruit trees and start over from scratch, losing millions of dollars in the process. One rootstock starter normally produces 10-20 plants.

“When farmers plant their trees, 10-40 percent die after planting,” Dhingra said at a recent TED forum, “and, of the ones that do survive, 10-20 percent are not what is ordered (due to) mix-ups.”

The farmers, he added, “have to put their money down, and wait for the fruit trees to arrive three to five years later.”

What if one could prevent mix-ups by testing the DNA of each plant before delivery, and in addition, through a soil-free multiplication system called tissue culture, multiply the number of plants produced and cut the time period for their growth?

“When I joined WSU, there was little gene-based information on apples, pears and cherries, so I initially mapped the entire DNA, or genome, of apples, pears and cherries,” Dhingra told the Capital Press of Pullman recently.

He said he led the U.S. research on apples in collaboration with Italian scientists and the results were published in 2010. In June 2013, he released the genomes of Golden Delicious apples, Comice pears, Stella sweet cherries and one bitter and one sweet almond, the Capital Press reported.

Meanwhile, Dhingra was also working to develop a process to increase the numbers of more robust fruit trees able to be grown in a shorter time.

That’s just what he did; so with some of his graduate students as co-owners and with a license from WSU with full disclosure in place, he founded Phytelligence, which does DNA testing to guarantee authenticity of fruit trees supplied to nurseries and farmers, and supplies more plants cheaper and farther along in the growth process than through traditional methods.

The process uses small pieces of plant, called explants, which are developed soil free in Petri dishes in “clean containers” supported by a proprietary mix of nutrients and artificial light.

The tissue culture system, Dhingra said in the TED talk, “multiplies plants three to five fold within three weeks. We can make 250,000 (two-inch-tall) plants from one starting plant in one year.”

“We don’t use pesticides, fungicides or insecticides,” he added. No fruit varieties are genetically engineered, Dhingra told India-West.

The fruit trees, he said, are “genetically tested to make sure they are true to type, to provide peace of mind (to nurseries and farmers). They are certain to thrive and produce fruit, and for every tree produced, they save up to 50-80 gallons of clean water. For every million trees, up to 80 million gallons of water” are saved — enough to supply the San Francisco Bay Area’s water needs for one year, he told the TED audience.

Phytelligence’s methods, Dhingra told India-West, have applications for reforestation, citrus and nut productions, winemaking and bio-fuel crops.

Through tissue culture, Phytelligence has the potential to make up to several million plants a year. “Every million additional trees can sequester the (amount of) carbon dioxide released by 100,000 cars,” Dhingra pointed out at the TED forum.

Phytelligence produced about 50,000 plants over the last year and expects to produce about 450,000 in 2015, with a target of 1.6 million in 2016.

“We are also developing a licensing model to train people how to do this,” he said. Six of the largest fruit nursery and growers in Washington, Oregon and California have invested in an “A” round of funding in the company.

The Indian American associate professor has a bachelor’s in science from Delhi University, an M.S. in botany from Agra University and a Ph.D. in plant molecular biology that he began at the University of Delhi and finished at Rutgers University in 2000, along the way receiving a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation.

He worked at Rutgers and in research at the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, before becoming an assistant professor at WSU in 2006.

His parents wanted him to be a doctor, but by the 8th grade in India he was determined to pursue the field of botany. “Plants are the reason why life exists on this planet. They give us oxygen to breathe,” he told the Capital Press.

His wife, Deepika, who has a doctorate in plant molecular biology, works in the WSU genomics lab that her husband heads. They have a ten-year-old daughter.

The Phytelligence technology, he told the Ted forum, “is simple, scalable and sustainable.” And it has one more essential thing, he added, “smart graduate students,” who, along with Dhingra, “want a healthy planet.”

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