Faculty Profile: Carol Mallory-Smith

For a weed scientist concerned with generating data that helps people make better decisions on herbicide use and regulation, Crop and Soil Science Professor Carol Mallory-Smith was used to wandering into thorny situations. After all, as a researcher in the Willamette Valley, she runs across growers and businesses on both sides of the equation.  But that’s nothing compared to her recent work studying the gene flow between crops and weeds.

Simply put, gene flow occurs when one species’ genes mixes with another species’ genes – combining two separate gene pools into one. Mallory-Smith focuses much of her research on agronomic crops, where gene flow between a crop and a weed can affect seed purity, lead to less economically viable crops and tone down public enthusiasm for a specific crop.

Mallory-Smith’s most public foray into gene flow was her work on the hybrids created between jointed goatgrass, an invasive weed native to Turkey, and Oregon’s top agronomic crop  -- wheat. It’s important to minimize gene flow in this case, she says, because the genes flow both ways

“To increase production, wheat has been bred to include genes that create herbicide resistance. With gene flow, these herbicide resistant genes are being found in jointed goatgrass hybrids, creating what we definitely don’t want – an invasive weed that doesn’t respond to common herbicides like Round Up,” she explains.

Results from research studies concluded that, since jointed goatgrass is a winter weed, a spring cover crop planted before the wheat goes into the ground can go a long way into cutting down gene flow, satisfying both farmers interested in growing the herbicide-resistant crop and those looking for a more environmentally-friendly way of dealing with the problem.

Since then, Mallory-Smith has been involved in other gene flow controversies in the Willamette Valley. Most recently, she’s found herself at the center of a debate involving genetically modified sugar beets. Growers dedicated to non-GM crops are fearful that gene flow will occur between the modified sugar beets and crops like Swiss chard and table beets.

While on the surface it looks like releasing an herbicide resistant gene into the wild is less than ideal, Mallory-Smith is adamant that she’s working on a peaceful coexistence between agriculture biotechnology corporations who create genetic modifications in crops, and farmers and activists opposed to this level of scientific tinkering.

“What we need to do is move towards some agreement of center on both sides, “ she explains. “Rather than squabbling, there should be focus on solutions to rampant gene flow.”