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Super-Sized Sun Seeds

Thursday, November 13, 2003
filed under: Research and Development

After toiling with sunflower genetics for nearly 30 years, Ray Meuchel is close to developing a new type of confection sunflower seed that may someday revolutionize the confection market, especially for in-shell product exported overseas.

Many a sunflower hybrid developer has emphasized seed size, but Meuchel’s sunflower breeding project is on a level all its own. Make no mistake, the seeds he is developing are huge. Whereas most of today’s commercial sunflower seeds are typically one-half to five-eighths of an inch long at best, Meuchel is developing seed that will be twice that or more in size.

Meuchel says a seed size of one inch (26 mm) or more would be particularly attractive in markets such as Turkey and Spain, where confection sunflower is consumed one seed at a time. Spaniards, who are the largest importer of U.S. confection in-shell sunflower, eat the seeds by putting the shell into their mouths, cracking the seed open on the small end of the shell, and then taking out the kernel to eat. In Turkey, the same is done, except the large end is cracked.

“With a preference for large in-shell sunflower, premium giant seeds should be successful there, as well as in niche markets elsewhere and in the U.S.,” says Meuchel, a N.D. native who now lives in Salem, Ore.

Meuchel is not your typical sunflower breeder. He has no formal training in a traditional academic research setting, and is largely self-taught in sunflower genetics and plant breeding. In fact, Meuchel’s primary job for years was driving for UPS—sunflower breeding was merely a sideline project, but a tedious one at that. He’d finish his eight-hour shift driving for UPS, then spend another four or five hours in the evening working on sunflower. It’s not a regimen he could do today, he admits.

Retiring from his UPS job several years ago, Meuchel now focuses exclusively on breeding giant confection sunflower. Achieving repeatable results with the decades-long project has entailed steely-eyed patience. “If there’s a genetic variable, confections have it. It comes out in every imaginable way, so to get these genetics stabilized is the challenge. It’s like a gigantic chess match, with millions of moves to get to the last move.”

Meuchel is getting close to achieving that last move, which is normal-sized confection sunflower seed that will yield the super-sized seed. Getting to that point has been the breeding battle. To produce a plant and seed with the predictable uniformity, plant vigor, and agronomic expectations of today’s commercial hybrid, Meuchel has spent years cross-breeding and evaluating various plant materials, using background genetics from places such as Russia and Kenya, with inherently-large seed.

The breeding process involves “cytoplasmic male sterility,” a means of controlling pollination so that only the desired cross is obtained, and selfing of the seed parent is eliminated. This is how the standard-sized seed can yield the giant seeds.

Developing super-sized shells is one challenge; filling them with super-sized kernels is another. That’s where Meuchel is making his genetic breakthrough.

“A large shell is nothing without the large kernel; it’s like a Cadillac with a Volkswagon engine. You have to fill the shell. That’s basically what I plan on coming in with. A large-sized shell with a consistently large-sized kernel.”

Meuchel’s research—all conducted through traditional breeding methods—has been helped along with a competitive small business innovative research grant through the U.S. Small Business Association. Recently, he also began collaborating with a major seed company. Meuchel has also collaborated on his project with federal sunflower researchers, including crop scientist Steven Knapp, who has made advancements in sunflower genetics research at Oregon State University, and Jinguo Hu, sunflower molecular geneticist at the USDA Northern Crop Science Laboratory in Fargo, N.D.

Knapp has identified the genetics responsible for the large seed, and working with Hu, Meuchel hopes to confirm genes responsible for the large kernel size in the material he is working with. Knowing the genes responsible for the large seed and kernel size streamlines Meuchel’s research, and helps assure the right genes are carried through in the breeding process.

“Instead of grow-outs, we can confirm the presence of these genes by simply analyzing leaf cuttings in the lab,” he says. If all goes right, Meuchel foresees F-1 hybrids developed for commercial production within a few years.

USDA research geneticist Jerry Miller of Fargo has been following Meuchel’s work, as the two share the same winter nursery location. “Other companies are working on large seed, but Ray’s are on a whole level above everyone else,” says Miller. “He’s developed some of the largest seeds I’ve ever seen, incorporated with excellent research.”

Meuchel’s unconventional research background makes his program all the more remarkable. “He’s done this by himself,” says Miller. “To see the progress Ray has made in bringing his program along to where it is today is really incredible.” – Tracy Sayler

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