Winter Awakens Spring Flowering

Rick Amasino
Photo by Frederic Bouche

It’s springtime in Wisconsin again. Home gardeners and farmers are busy tending to their beds and fields, relishing the fresh sprouts of flowers, vegetables, and crops. It begs the question: What happens in the inner workings of plants as they prepare for spring? What’s the science that governs the growing season for different flora?

Rick Amasino, a plant biochemist and professor in the Department of Biochemistry, may have the answers — or at least some of them. He studies plant development and, specifically, how and when plants produce flowers. In 2016, his expertise earned him a place on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee tasked with investigating the impacts of genetically engineered crops.

Many plants have effectively evolved a way to avoid flowering prior to winter. Instead, they use the cold season to help activate flowering when the weather warms. Amasino’s research sheds light on what conditions a plant must experience in order to flower. In particular, he focuses on unraveling the genetic basis of the effects these conditions have on plants as they stimulate or repress flowering. His findings may allow other scientists and plant breeders to develop crops that are more efficient and have higher yields of food or energy.

How do plants respond to spring?

There are a wide range of responses. For example, some plants need to be exposed to winter cold to flower in the spring, whereas others form spring flowers as a result of being exposed to the decreasing hours of sunlight during the fall season. Apple and cherry trees are in this latter category — their flowers are actually formed in the previous fall in buds that become dormant. Then, when it gets warm the following spring, everything that was crammed into those buds in the fall just unfolds. Other plants like lilies, for example, require exposure to cold in order to flower. When they are growing in the fall, flowering is blocked. But over winter, the block is removed and they flower in the spring. The underlying processes for this involve a lot of biochemistry, and that’s what we’ve studied in my lab. Specifically, we study how flowering is blocked in the fall and how exposure to cold results in the removal of this block. The block removal process is known as vernalization; this word is derived from vernal, which means “relating to spring.”

Are there any more examples of plants that need winter to flower?

Some common examples include many of the vegetables we plant in the spring, such as cabbage, carrots, and beets. We don’t usually see these particular vegetables flowering because they will not flower until they experience winter, and we harvest them before they have a chance to flower. Many grasses go through this process as well.

Why should we be interested in this process?

This requirement to go through winter in order to flower is important agriculturally; food plants keep growing without flowering all summer long and, therefore, the part which we consume can get very large. However, if you left a carrot in the ground after the summer, it would flower the next spring, and the underground part of the carrot we eat would become shriveled as it provides the nutrients for flowers to form.

If it gets warmer earlier, is that a problem?

An early warming trend in itself isn’t problematic if it continues into spring, but our climate is likely to be more variable than that. So, if we have unusually high temperatures late in the winter and cherry blossoms in Door County open, but then we get a blast of cold afterward, the flowers will be destroyed and fruit cannot form.

What’s going on on the inside of the plant that determines whether or not it flowers?

In the plants we study that require winter, there is a gene encoding a repressor protein that is expressed in the fall that prevents the plant from flowering. Then, over the winter, control of the repressor gene is altered in a way that the repressor is no longer expressed. Consequently, plants can flower when it gets warm, and they resume growth in the spring in the absence of the repressor protein. We’ve recently published research specifically on the small Mediterranean grass called Brachypodium. Previous work has shown that a gene called VRN1 is responsible for activating flowering in these grasses after the winter. But what’s the repressor gene keeping VRN1 in check in the fall? That was previously unclear. We did genetic screens and found several of the genes that repress the VRN1 gene prior to winter. We just published a scientific paper on one of these, calling it RVR1, for its role in repressing VRN1.

Why are gene discoveries like this important for this area of research?

Scientists that breed cereal grains may find this newly identified gene interesting. However, we think it could also impact biofuels research. I am part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) here on campus. Although switchgrass, which can be used to make biofuels, doesn’t go through the vernalization process, there’s a good chance that taking the RVR1 gene from Brachypodium and putting it in switchgrass will delay switchgrass flowering. Delaying switchgrass flowering to various extents may improve yield.

Why is understanding this process important?

In basic research like ours, we often don’t know where exactly it’s going, but it often ends up having practical relevance. Our goal is to understand the biochemical pathways that plants have evolved to flower at certain times of the year. But in crops, in which the timing of flowering is important, this research can be applicable. For example, we share our unpublished work with wheat breeders who can translate some of the knowledge into increased efficiency in a breeding program. Also, our work has revealed basic principles of how genes are regulated, which has implications for many areas. Another example of applicability, although not directly from our research, was useful for sugar beet farmers, who plant in the spring. A spring cold spell will trigger some of the sugar beets to flower, and flowering plants do not produce the part of the beet the farmers harvest. Scientists in Europe modified genes involved in the flowering response to cold and came up with a sugar beet variety that doesn’t flower if it is exposed to cold. Now farmers can plant their beets in the fall rather than the spring to allow them to have a much longer growing season and to grow bigger — and they don’t have to worry about the beets flowering. This has significantly increased the yield per acre of sugar beets.

What’s your next step in this research?

We are going to continue to work with other GLBRC researchers to study Brachypodium and how different varieties of the plant live and persist in winters that have varying temperatures and lengths. How did one variety evolve a system tweaked to require 16 weeks of cold? Why does another one require just two weeks of cold? In other words, what’s the genetic and biochemical difference between the requirement for a short winter versus a long winter? Grasses are really important crops, and this model for studying flowering can tell us a lot about how they work

Safer Native Foods

At the edge of a remote Alaskan peninsula, 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, lies the city of Kotzebue. Snow-covered in winter and starless for weeks in sum- mer, Kotzebue is home to roughly 3,300 people, most of whom are native Iñupiat Eskimos.

People there consume a diet rich in animals found in the region, including caribou, seal and whale. Following Native tradition, foods often are fermented or consumed raw.

But they sometimes are contaminated with one of the most poisonous known toxins: botulinum toxin, produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botuli- num. In fact, Alaska has one of the highest rates of food-borne botulism in the U.S., most likely because of those traditional foods. Botulism can cause paraly- sis, respiratory failure and death, so traditional foods are not allowed to be served in state-run facilities like nursing homes.

A group called the Seal Oil Task Force, comprising Native organizations like the Maniilaq Association along with state government partners, has formed to try to change that. They want Native elders to continue enjoying foods they have known their whole lives.

Which is how CALS bacteriology professor Eric Johnson, one of the world’s foremost experts on Clostridium, came to find himself on a boat in Kotzebue last summer, traveling to a Native process- ing facility where seal oil is produced.

Seal oil is to many Alaska Natives what soy sauce is to some Asian cultures: a staple of their diets, Johnson explains. It is also especially prone to botulinum contamination. The task force contacted Johnson in 2015 to see if he could help.

“Many of the foods they absolutely cherish can result in botulism,” Johnson says. “They want to inte- grate food safety into traditional Native foods.”

The catch is that any new processing methods can- not alter the final product or significantly stray from traditional production. For instance, heating the oil would kill the bacteria, but it also changes the taste.

Johnson is working with the task force to deter- mine how the bacteria are contaminating traditional food products. This has involved rendering seal oil back in his campus lab, testing for toxin as the blubber stripped from hunted seals emulsifies at ambient tem- perature into the nutrient-rich, yellow-hued delicacy.

In Kotzebue, seal oil is produced by cutting fresh blubber into pieces, placing it in a covered vat, and stirring—twice a day—until the fat eventually gives way to oil.

Johnson has a theory that Clostridium, found naturally in soil, may colonize minuscule pockets of water present in the fat as it breaks down. He wants to develop a method to prevent the bacteria from contaminating the oil, or a method to neutralize the toxin.

In the process, Johnson is learning more about Alaska Native culture and believes his work could have even greater reach. “It could have an impact on cultures elsewhere,” Johnson says.

Partnering for safety: Bacteriologist Eric Johnson (right) chatting with a colleague in Kotzebue.
Photo credit: Eric Johnson

A Tale of Two Cheeses

Many of the world’s greatest cheeses are made in Wisconsin. It’s a fact that begs the question: How do those cheeses get to be great?

A key ingredient is the Center for Dairy Research (CDR), based at CALS and operated with funds from dairy farmers, dairy food manufacturers and processors, and other industry partners. Located within a licensed, operating dairy plant on the UW–Madison campus, its facilities include a cheese pilot plant, a dairy ingredients pilot plant, a sensory lab, an analytical lab and an applications lab, all of which are available to cheesemakers and other dairy manufacturers for trial runs and testing new products. For experienced cheesemakers seeking rigorous additional training, CDR, in partnership with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, offers a three-year program of courses and mentoring leading to certification as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker.

CDR’s experts boast hundreds of years of combined experience in industry and academia. Those experts have something else in common: Many grew up in the same milieu as the cheesemakers they work with around the state.

We are pleased to present here the success stories of two very different kinds of Wisconsin cheesemakers who availed themselves of CDR’s support and expertise.

Mexican Melty 

When milk is converted into cheese, science alone takes you only so far, says Tom Dahmen, a second-generation cheesemaker who manages the Chula Vista cheese factory near Browntown, in southwestern Wisconsin.

“I’m a big believer in heavy-duty science, but there is always a bit of magic in making cheese,” says Dahmen, who began washing cheesecloths at age 6. Intuition and experience also play a role, he notes.

At Chula Vista, those ingredients are combined to produce a string cheese called Oaxaca (wa-HA-ka), which received the Best in Class award in the Hispanic melting cheese category at the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison. The CALS com- munity can take pride in this honor, because CDR helped Chula Vista create the cheese.

Oaxaca is a white, mild-flavored cheese used in many Mexican dishes. The cheese gets its name from the Mexican state where the style originated.

At the Chula Vista plant, named for its beautiful view of Lafayette County dairy farms, people work two shifts making two styles of Mexican cheese.

Chula Vista and V&V Supremo of Chicago were cheesemaking partners for decades. Last September V&V bought the plant, where employment has risen to 80, up from 34 about seven years ago.

Although Chula Vista purchased and sold Oaxaca cheese for several years, “We were never happy with the qual- ity, so we decided to move production in-house,” Dahmen says. “I had spent 14 years making a related style, but there were challenges to our ‘make,’ so we went to CDR. They helped us from the beginning.”

Starting in around 2010, Dahmen and Alan Hamann, V&V’s senior man- ager of quality control, began talking with CDR researchers about the details of fat-protein ratios, milk solids, chemis- try and pH.

“You have to control all of these factors even as the milk changes subtly from one truckload to the next,” says Hamann, who has more than 36 years of experience in the dairy industry.

Once the ideas were collated, they needed to be tested. At Browntown, each test would require 5,000 pounds of milk, Hamann says. Vats at CDR, however, would require only 500 pounds, reducing cost and eliminating errors attributable to running tests with different batches of milk. “At CDR, we could test several variables at once,” Hamann says. “Working at CDR drastically cuts your timeline and offers much more control.”

When the improved Oaxaca reached the market in 2015, Chula Vista was producing one or two vats per week. Now the company makes that much in a day.

Oaxaca cheese is produced using a procedure similar to that used for fresh mozzarella. Pasteurized milk is set (coagulated) and cut in a stainless- steel vat and then turned into curd slabs that are moved to a cooker-stretcher, a machine where heating and repeated folding links protein molecules, forming the familiar elastic product called string cheese.

The stretched curd is then formed into cylinders by six nozzles, cut to length and packaged for shipment to stores ranging from “mom and pops” to Wal-Mart, says Philip Villasenor, V&V’s vice president of manufacturing.

Beyond technical advice, CDR offers business consulting to the dairy industry, says Vic Grassman, CDR’s technology commercialization manager. “We help firms develop products and expand,” says Grassman. “I help with economic development financing, permits, workforce information and development.”

As employment tightens, particularly in rural areas, CDR links manufacturers with existing resources for economic development. “It’s not just ‘Develop the product and you are on your own,’” Grassman says.

But when you visit Chula Vista, it’s all about the cheese. Even though Chula Vista aims for a standardized, pure product, “Every vat is a controlled experiment,” says Dahmen. “We are predicting what is going to happen, and we are pretty accurate, but this is a living system, and unplanned things happen: A pump dies. A cooler dies. People don’t show up. But once you start a batch, you have to finish.”

Those snafus are familiar to both Chula Vista and CDR, says Dahmen. “The beauty of working with CDR is that they are heavy, heavy on science, but their people have all worked in the industry. They have this blend of science and art that you can only gain from experience. For our Oaxaca cheese, they greatly shortened the timeline to reach the product quality we were looking for.”

The collaboration with CDR also served as a rich educational experi- ence for Dahmen. Earlier this year he earned certification as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker for Quesadilla and Oaxaca cheeses.

Alpine Goodness

If you walk into Roelli Cheese Haus near Shullsburg in southwest Wisconsin, you’ll see plenty of succu- lent Wisconsin cheeses—but not Little Mountain, the company’s champion cheese. It lives behind the counter, with nary a sign.

Little Mountain, described by its maker as a “classic upland style from Switzerland,” is not contraband, but Roelli is practically running on empty after a “Best of Show” at the American Cheese Society contest last July. “We feel pretty honored,” says company owner Chris Roelli, noting that Little Mountain bested 1,842 other cheeses in the competition.

Although Roelli is a fourth-generation cheesemaker, in creating the recipe and honing the details of microbiology, timing and equipment, he got assistance from CDR. “For us as a small business, tapping the experience at CDR was invaluable,” says Roelli. “It accelerated our path to bring this cheese to the market, literally by years.”

Little Mountain requires at least seven months of careful aging to achieve its characteristic flavor, texture and rind. Aging occurs in an above-ground “cellar,” with cooling pipes along the walls. Forced air would waft microbes, threatening the cheese with spoilage.

Roelli’s great-grandfather, Adolph Roelli, immigrated from Altburon, Switzerland to Green County in the early 1900s. “He was a cheesemaker’s apprentice in different areas of the Swiss Alps,” says Roelli. “He settled here as a farmer and sold milk to a co-op, which offered him a job as head cheesemaker, based on his experience in Switzerland.”

Roelli says he’s been in and out of cheese factories all his life. “I watched my granddad make commodity cheddar,” says Roelli, but the factory closed shortly after Roelli got a cheesemaker’s license in 1989. “We weren’t able to compete.”

In 2005, unable to stay away from the family business, Roelli returned with “Cheese on Wheels,” a cheese plant mounted on an 18-wheeler.

The following year he started an artisanal cheese business in a new factory behind his store on Highway 11 east of Shullsburg, and started to envision a Swiss cheese that would go back to the family’s roots. In preparation, he says, “I went around and tasted as much Swiss mountain-style cheese as I could.”

Both Emmentaler and Gruyère were already produced nearby, and Roelli mulled a Swiss version of Parmesan before settling on an Appenzeller, a hard-rind cheese flavored with “washes” of brine as it ages.

He approached John Jaeggi, CDR’s cheese industry and applications coordinator, with some flavor profiles he was looking for. “I made a couple of batches here as total experiments, and we went to the CDR and made six batches to fine-tune the culture and process,” Roelli says.

In Jaeggi, Roelli found a particularly kindred spirit for this project. Jaeggi is a third-generation, Swiss-descended cheesemaker from Green County who, like Roelli, grew up in a cheese family. “If you look at the history of Wisconsin, a lot of cheese factories were family operations and the family was involved in all aspects of the business,” Jaeggi says. “The younger generation would start on the bottom floor, cleaning, sanitizing, packaging and working their way up.”

The initial conversations with Roelli, Jaeggi says, concerned flavor, texture and equipment. “We talked about aging, culture, the ‘make’ schedule. Chris came up to CDR and worked in our test vats, looking at cocktails of microbial cultures for different flavor profiles. Once we got close, we went to his plant two or three times to make the cheese, then optimized the make procedure to fit his plant.”

The cheese would be aged from seven to 16 months while being washed with a hush-hush recipe of salt, yeast and bacteria. The wash would break down proteins and fat to create the rind and desired flavor.

“Although artisan cheesemakers are pretty open in general, when it comes to world-class cheese, there are still secrets out there,” Roelli says.

Holding secrets is a point of pride at CDR. “To be able to draw from the knowledge base at CDR was invaluable,” says Roelli, who has earned certification as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker. “There is nowhere else you could get that. If John Jaeggi or Mark Johnson [a CDR cheese scientist] asks for help from someone in Europe, they will help. They don’t know me, but they know them.”

Someday the world’s top cheesemakers may start to know Chris Roelli, who has built his future atop his history and the cheese wisdom brought by his great- grandfather from Switzerland. “If you make something really good, people will find it,” Roelli says. “We entered competitions to garner some interest from places where we don’t normally get it. You don’t have to set the world on fire with advertising.”

Between the store and the cheese plant, Roelli Cheese Haus has five employees. Chris Roelli also runs a larger business hauling milk from farms.

Demand for Little Mountain exploded after the award in July, Roelli says. “We beat the world champ from last year, and three other American Cheese Society Best of Shows from past years. We have upped production for the end of 2017 as much as we can. I still have a list as long as my right arm wanting the next batch.”

Undergrad helps teach orphans about hydroponic farming

There are capstones, and there are capstones.

For his capstone—a discipline-spanning research project required of all students graduating from CALS—soil science student Jacob Kruse BS’16 spent a summer working with orphans in Lima, Peru, to set up and run a hydroponic growing system.

More than 60 children from the Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II orphanage—a mission of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin—participated in growing crops that included tomatoes, peppers, bok choy and lettuce. The kids learned all about hydroponics, the art of growing plants in water, sand or gravel instead of soil, adding nutrients as needed.

But the project’s overarching benefits ran deeper. Beyond producing and learning about healthy food, “The goals were to teach children about water and natural resource use and reuse, help build connections between families and friends through common interests and projects and help the children develop responsibility,” says Kruse.

Kruse spent three months helping build the system and offering hands-on instruction on the basics of hydroponics—one class for older children and another for the younger ones. The kids learned about the environmental benefits of hydroponics, how to build home hydroponics out of household items and how to care for the garden.

A manufacturer of specialty chemicals for construction and industry, Sika Peru S.A., funded the project and built the garden structures with recycled materials. Mantisee, a nonprofit organization, provided the system design and plants. Both organizations, Kruse says, are concerned with natural resource use and social development, and they see the hydroponic system as a way to teach water use and nutrient efficiency—an important point in Lima, the world’s second-driest capital city.

Sika has also set up a scholarship and internship program for children at Casa Hogar who complete the hydroponic classes. “Sika’s scholarship and internship program will truly be life-changing for our children, and this collaborative project will have a lasting impact on our orphanage and the children who call it home,” says Jordan Zoroufy, Casa Hogar’s director of development.

Kruse’s faculty advisor, soil science professor Phillip Barak, is both impressed and delighted with the project. “We like our capstone experiences to be very hands-on and to have a service component,” Barak says. “Jake’s self-designed capstone sets a very high bar—food, children and education. Helping build a hydroponic food system from the ground up and turning it over to the children in the orphanage is quite an accomplishment.”

Matthew Bayer

Matthew Bayer - Class of 2012

Matthew Bayer – Class of 2012

Class of 2012 • Matthew Bayer is the co-owner of Country Fresh Meats in Weston, Wisconsin, a familyowned and -operated meat processing plant that’s been in business since 1982 and has 45 full-time employees. Country Fresh Meats sells products to convenience stores all around Wisconsin and distributes out of state as well. Bayer is a longstanding member of the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors and currently serves as president of the Wisconsin Beef Council. Despite his many years of experience, Bayer found there was still much to learn in the Master Meat Crafter course. “It’s helped me work on efficiency in our process, along with maintaining or increasing the quality of the product,” says Bayer. “It’s also helped in developing new products and trying different things.” Bayer thanks the Master Meat Crafter course for inspiring him to start producing Genoa salami and Sopressata, to name a few examples.

Jennifer Dierkes

Jennifer Dierkes - Class of 2014

Jennifer Dierkes – Class of 2014

Class of 2014 • Jennifer Dierkes is the general manager and one of three owners of McDonald’s Meats, a market and meat processing facility in Clear Lake, Minnesota. She began her career there in 1990 washing dishes while she was still in high school. “I have been part of helping grow this business from a very small butcher shop with a staff of five to a full-service meat market with 35 employees,” she says. Her favorite part of her job is the process of creating new products and helping staff grow and learn new things, she says—and her experience at CALS has enhanced those efforts: “The Master Meat Crafter course has helped immensely in my work. I learned much more about the science behind what we do every day. When you know that, troubleshooting the problems that arise becomes much easier.”

Vance Lautsbaugh

Vance Lautsbaugh - Class of 2016

Vance Lautsbaugh – Class of 2016

Class of 2016 • Vance Lautsbaugh is the production manager at Crescent Meats in Cadott, Wisconsin, where he deals with everything from scheduling day-to-day operations to HACCP/meat inspection, product formulations, employee training and troubleshooting when problems arise. “I enjoy being the manager and that everyone respects my judgment, but my favorite part of my job is making new products and formulations,” he says. “Making the best quality products that I can and hearing compliments from the customers when they try them is what drives me.”

Lautsbaugh finds that the Master Meat Crafter course helped deepen the knowledge and interests he’d developed as a food science student at UW–River Falls: “This class has helped me in so many ways, but most importantly it has given me more confidence when talking to customers and employees. Because I understand what is happening to the meat at all stages of production, I can explain it and teach others what I know.”

Louis E. Muench

Louis Muench - Class of 2012

Louis Muench – Class of 2012

Class of 2012 • As the president of Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland, Wisconsin, Louie Muench has a lot on his plate. Besides being the head sausage maker, Muench oversees and manages all aspects of the business. His favorite area is product development as he has more than 100 kinds of brats. The Master Meat Crafter program increased Muench’s networking capability with both suppliers and alumni, which gives him more exposure and support when trying new methods and learning how to expand his business. When he isn’t working, Muench enjoys crosscountry skiing, hunting and fishing in the north woods.

Richard Reams

Richard Reams - Class of 2012

Richard Reams – Class of 2012

Class of 2012 • Rick “RJ” Reams owns and operates RJ’s Meats & Groceries in Hudson, Wisconsin, working alongside his wife, Anne, and sons Anthony, Aaron and Joe. RJ’s is a fullservice retail meat market and producer of many varieties of sausage, ham, bacon and salami. While he originally started with fresh meats, Reams now really loves making sausage. The Master Meat Crafter program helped Reams immensely in two ways: it helped educate his staff in food safety and why things are done certain ways, and it got him making Italian salami with wine, a product that is now shipped all over the United States. In his free time, Reams enjoys fishing and learning more about the meat industry.

Jake Sailer

Jake Sailer - Class of 2012

Jake Sailer – Class of 2012

Class of 2012 • Jake Sailer co-owns Sailer’s Food Market and Meat Processing Inc., in Elmwood, Wisconsin, along with his father and mother and his wife, Leslie. As a fifth-generation meat cutter, Sailer has great expertise in the cured and smoked meats that he produces. He’s won numerous awards at state, national and international levels with such products as bacon, hams and smoked beef. The Master Meat Crafter program has given him a better understanding of the science behind meat processing and has allowed him to grow relationships and friendships with others in the industry. When he’s not working, Sailer enjoys spending time at a cabin with family and friends, flying an airplane and cutting wood.

Ashley Sutterfield

Class of 2016 • Ashley Sutterfield is an associate manager of sales development at Tyson Foods, Inc. in Bentonville, Arkansas. In this role, she manages projects as a liaison between the customer, the Tyson sales team and their internal business units. Sutterfield’s favorite moments are when she can translate her scientific knowledge into lay terms for the people she works with. Some of that knowledge came from the Master Meat Crafter program, which Sutterfield says was “invaluable to my career as I developed as a meat scientist and made connections within the industry.” In her free time, Sutterfield enjoys traveling, advocating for the tiny house movement and training for Ironman Wisconsin 2016.

Josh Swart

Josh Swart - Class of 2016

Josh Swart – Class of 2016

Class of 2016 • As a supervisor in the sausage production kitchen at Usinger’s Famous Sausage in Milwaukee, Swart is responsible for setting up the product flow and making sure all production is finished for the day. He started working for a smaller sausage company during summer breaks from school and collected experience and knowledge there before moving to Usinger’s. Swart enjoys being able to share the reasons why they do things in a particular way—information he learned by taking the Master Meat Crafters program. In his free time, Swart likes to play bass and listen to music.