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Parma onion research seeks to extend storage,
reap millions for Idaho growers and processors

by Amy R. Fisher

If Idaho’s commercial onion growers can extend the time onions can be stored to 11 months—from the current 9 months—it could mean millions of dollars in the pockets of Idaho industry.

The Treasure Valley supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s winter onions, but its storage season, which begins in September, currently winds down in early May when unsold onions start to rot. Local processors then have to pay long-haul shipping costs from other regions. McCain Foods, one of Idaho’s major onion processors, estimates if the onion-storing season could be extended by two months, it would be worth $20 million to local industry.


Two developments show some promise, says Mike Thornton, superintendent of the University of Idaho’s Parma Research and Extension Center. Three years of long-term cold-storage trials for new onion varieties show several varieties retain a “very high proportion” of marketable bulbs after10 months of storage, says Thornton.

Also, Thornton and a company from Israel recently completed evaluation of a stabilized hydrogen peroxide product that “appears to significantly reduce storage decay.”

One caution is that this product is not yet labeled in the U.S. for use on onions, though it is approved as a sprout suppressant for potatoes. “The company will have to do the work to get the product labeled in the U.S. for onions, too,” says Thornton.

Then they will have to do a commercial-scale evaluation to convince industry that the costs of product and application are worthwhile. “No telling when or if both of these things will occur,” says Thornton.

Contact Mike Thornton at

Science Update

UI Extension’s Shaklee supports Just in Time Parenting website

by Amy R. Fisher

Want to know how to help your 1-month-old baby enjoy exercise? Get your 2-year-old  to cooperate? Your 4-year-old to help with household chores?

Answers are as close as Just In Time Parenting (JITP), Parenting_eNewsletters
a new Cooperative Extension System website packed with advice about children from the womb through age 5. Anyone interested can sign up to get free and timely electronic newsletters with insights on what to expect in your child’s development.


“There has been a lot of interest and research in early childhood development over the last 10 years,” says Harriet Shaklee, University of Idaho Extension’s Boise-based family development specialist who contributes to the project. “By pooling the best research and information from family development specialists across the nation, we offer new parents unified and consistent information as they need it.” 

New parents who sign up can expect the e-mailed newsletters to arrive monthly for the first year, and bimonthly thereafter. JITP’s newsletter-filled website can be accessed anywhere in the world. Already parents from other countries are subscribing, says Shaklee, especially those from countries where Spanish is prevalent, since the website delivers information in  both English and Spanish.

Though e-mail notices are only in English, Spanish versions of JITP information are available through a child’s third year. By 2011 full resources through a child’s fifth year will be available in Spanish.

Contact Harriet Shaklee

Science Update

Mom’s exposure to plastic byproduct may impact fetal heart development

By Mary Ann Reese

Preliminary research at the University of Idaho suggests a pregnant mother’s daily exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) used in some plastics and epoxy resins that line food and beverage containers could affect development of her unborn child’s heart.

plastic bottle

Anecdotal evidence is that the rising incidence of cardiovascular disease may be related to early and long-term exposure to BPA,” said Gordon K. Murdoch, Moscow, animal physiologist in the UI Department of Animal and Veterinary Science (AVS).

He is also a member of the Washington State University-University of Idaho Center for Reproductive Biology BPA’s appearance in food containers “most certainly results in the potential for daily low-dose, long-term exposure of humans to any adverse effects of this substance,” said Murdoch.

BPA is an endocrine disruptor (interfering with functions of a body’s natural hormones) that can mimic the body’s own hormones and may lead to negative health effects, especially during early development. While initial concerns about human exposure to BPA focused on reproductive health and urogenital development, Murdoch said his team “hypothesized that maternal exposure to BPA during pregnancy may also affect muscle development in their offspring.”

His initial research used fetal heart tissue, first of mice and then of rhesus monkeys. Mouse and monkey heart tissues were provided to him by collaborating scientist Pat Hunt at WSU. Grants totaling $70,000 from the private Passport Foundation-Science and Innovation Fund supported his work alongside UI AVS graduate student Kalyan Chapalamadugu from India.

Murdoch’s initial results, soon to be submitted for publication in Environmental Health Perspectives, a scientific journal read by health care professionals and scientists, “indicate that daily maternal exposure to BPA does alter the gene expression profile in the developing fetal heart,” said Murdoch. He also presented his findings at a September BPA symposium in Raleigh, N.C., hosted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which conducts basic research on environmental health and environment-related issues.

“We don’t know the exact mechanism that’s altering the heart, but something is,” added Murdoch, who will continue his research if he gets a $75,000 supplemental grant requested from the National Institutes of Health.

Contact Gordon K. Murdoch

Science Update

UI-WSU team researches microbiomes’ impact on milk cows, human babies

by Amy R. Fisher

“The microbiome world is exploding,” says Mark McGuire, University of Idaho professor of animal and veterinary science. He is a participating faculty member of the University of Idaho’s Initiative for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies (IBEST) and also works with the UI-WSU Center for Reproductive Biology.

As leaders in the field of microbiomes in human and animal lactation—providing milk for the young—McGuire and his team are traveling the world from Peru to Sweden to consult collaborators. 


A microbiome is everything about microbes including their genetic elements and    environmental interactions within a defined environment—in this case a cow’s or human mother’s lactation system. McGuire says his team is discovering that “the function and health of the physical body is impacted by the vast array of bacteria that make up a community in tissues.”

Mastitis, for example, a potentially fatal inflammatory infection of mammary glands in cattle, is caused by a single species of bacteria. This disease costs the U.S. dairy industry up to $2 billion a year. McGuire hopes results from his research might cure or even prevent mastitis completely “within five years.”

Mother’s milk. His research also may impact our ability to supplement the health of human mothers and their children. “For years we’ve known about benefits that a breastfeeding infant receives through his or her mother,” says McGuire, “from          protection against illness and allergies to a decreased chance of obesity. This is due in part to up to 500 types of probiotics in human milk versus perhaps one or two currently added to baby formula.”

The Gates Foundation in late 2010 funded $100,000 for McGuire’s research to determine the influence of human milk’s microbiome on the infant’s gastrointestinal tract. He will collaborate with his wife, scientist Shelley McGuire, at Washington State University.

Contact Mark McGuire at

Science Update

Study examines fertilizer use in wheat; Idaho’s
best/worst nutrient use crops include spuds, onions

by Amy R. Fisher

Improvements in nutrient management result in cleaner and safer surface and ground water supplies, says University of Idaho Extension Soil Specialist Bob Mahler, Moscow.

A member of the Pacific Northwest Regional Water Resources Team, Mahler is working with Oregon State and Washington State university scientists to conduct a three-state study to document nutrient use in wheat—the first such wheat study in 20 years.


“Application of fertilizer has a lot to do with how well the nitrogen is used by the crop,” says Mahler. “The best time to fertilize wheat, for example, is in April and May. But it is also the muddiest time of the year, and crop dusting is an expensive option.” As a result, most farmers fertilize at the time of planting, resulting in wheat having only a 45-percent nitrogen use efficiency. Survey results in the spring will document whether nitrogen use efficiency in wheat has improved in 20 years.

According to Mahler, nitrogen use efficiency in Idaho crops varies widely.

Potato farmers “spoon feed” their crops over the growing season, giving just the right amount when needed to ensure the largest, healthiest potato crop, says Mahler. Sprinkler irrigation systems also help prevent fertilizers from washing away or leaching through the ground, resulting in a 75-percent nitrogen use efficiency for the potato—the highest in Idaho.

Then there’s the onion. Mahler says most onion farmers furrow irrigate—the most inefficient irrigation method—which tends to wash away or leach fertilizers, resulting in nitrogen use efficiency well below 50 percent.

Switching to more efficient sprinklers is not an option for most commercial growers because the surface water they use for irrigation can be full of bacteria that rot onions. But UI’s Parma Research and Extension Center superintendent and onion specialist Mike Thornton reports onion growers are switching to drip irrigation. About 25 percent of onion acreage is now under drip to take advantage of reduced fertilizer and other inputs.

Contact Bob Mahler at or Mike Thornton at

Science Update

Greg Möller, Sherlock Holmes,
and sleuthing “pine nut mouth”


By Mary Ann Reese

First a San Francisco reporter called University of Idaho’s Greg Möller, professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at the UI-WSU School of Food Science, asking what he knew about “pine nut mouth”—a long-lasting bitter or metallic taste that develops in the mouths of some people after eating pine nuts. It can last up to two weeks. “The unpleasant taste isn’t the response you want from your dinner guests after serving up your favorite pine nut pesto fettuccine,” said Möller, who now gets “quite a few inquiries” each month about the disorder.

So he wrote what he knows about the topic for a food technology magazine Since then, with PBS News Hour asking for an interview, the Los Angeles Times blogging about it, ( the Irish Times publishing an article describing it, ( and the European Food Safety Authority expecting to report on it by end of 2010, Möller and his colleagues have conducted some informal research on the topic, and he says this fall “we’re trying to recruit an undergraduate researcher to take on the project.”

The problem eventually resolves itself, but the puzzle of why it affects some people has piqued the Sherlock Holmes in him.

“My colleague, Professor Caleb Nindo, used an electronic nose instrument on some pine nut samples and curiously found elevated linalool oxide on some bulk bin samples (meaning they’re not as fresh). Linalool—a terpene compound—is a common pleasantly scented natural  product found in pines and many plants, and it is used in many commercial products,” Möller added. “However, the  oxidized form linalool oxide is linked to  contact dermatitis, a chemical sensitivity  in a small percent of people.”
So, could that be who done it? Research may tell.

Contact Greg Möller at