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Washington mint oil industry packs fresh impact

As the country’s top producer of mint oil, Washington helps keep breath minty fresh
“The Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley have the ideal climate,” said Jim Kassebaum, chairman of the Washington Mint Commission and a longtime mint farmer from Outlook.
In 2008, the state produced more than 1.9 million pounds of peppermint oil and nearly 1.8 million pounds of spearmint oil. One pound equals about a pint and packs a punch. About 12,500 sticks of gum or 1,000 tubes of toothpaste can be flavored from a pound of mint oil, according to the commission.
Kassebaum and about 40 others in the mint industry recently convened at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser to hear about threats to mint plants and how to control harmful pathogens, as well as learn about various irrigation techniques and more. It was a chance for hands-on updates on the latest research.
Dennis Johnson, WSU plant pathologist, talked about rotating crops with mint to help control Verticillium wilt. And at a test plot full of mint plants, Troy Peters and Romulus Okwany explained the results of using varrying quatities of water on the plants.
Harold Sealock, a mint farmer near Toppenish, attended the event. He was particularly interested in the research on deficit irrigation. Hearing about the latest research from WSU was educational, he said, adding that researchers are always helpful when it comes to pest and weed problems.
Meanwhile, back in Pullman, Mark Lange, an assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, is researching the potential of mint as a disease-fighting drug platform. By introducing genes from other medicinal plants in peppermint, he hopes to create precursors to existing drugs or new molecules that can be developed as drugs.
“What we’re trying to do is change the composition of the oil so that the oil contains chemicals important as intermediates in the pharmaceutical and fragrance industries,” Lange recently told the Capital Press.
Mint is being used because it’s easy to grow, is highly productive and can be quickly distilled into a food-grade oil.
“You have a very clean product, and the new chemical is accumulated in a food-grade oil and can be used directly,” he said.
Currently, Lange and his colleagues are working to induce a precursor to an anti-malarial molecule in peppermint, with an anti-cancer drug in the wings.   
From the agronomic to the genomic, WSU mint research continues to have fresh impact.

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