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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Agronomy and Horticulture Department Adds New Physiologist

LAS CRUCES - Erin Silva, an onion and chile physiology specialist, has joined New Mexico State University's agronomy and horticulture department, where she will lead research on these New Mexico culinary icons' taste, pigment and storability.

"I'm excited to be here in New Mexico," said Silva, who comes to the university after completing a postdoctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "There are always things that can be improved. In the past I've worked extensively with onions and I'm looking forward to new programs with chile, which is such a unique crop."

Pigment quality in chile is critically important. Throughout the world, red coloring is extracted from paprika powder and used in a stunning range of consumer products from cosmetics to processed meats. Just about any type of product that needs to be red can be colored with chile, including lipsticks and pepperoni.

Once picked and processed, chile is New Mexico's most valuable vegetable, worth more than $200 million annually.

In terms of onions, Silva will initially focus her research on the physiological
characteristics of the bulbs that could lead to developing a firmer onion for New Mexico growers. "The firmness of an onion is related to its susceptibility to bruising during mechanical harvesting," she said. "And a bruised onion means that ultimately consumer quality suffers."

NMSU is one of the region's centers for onion breeding and research. Last year, NMSU released two new fall-seeded onion varieties onion varieties, 'NuMex Solano' and 'NuMex Crimson.' New Mexico growers produce 8,000 acres of onions, mostly in Doņa Ana and Luna counties.

Prior to joining NMSU, Silva's research centered on problems associated with storing potatoes and extracting pigment from an unusual vegetable source - purple carrots. While they taste similar to conventional carrots, the new purple varieties are rich in healthy antioxidants, she said. They're also used extensively in Europe as a natural food coloring.

Silva also has experience in viticulture, having served in the quality control laboratories of Washington's Hogue Cellars, one of the Northwest's leading wineries.

In addition to her research, Silva will also teach graduate and undergraduate courses on postharvest physiology as an assistant professor. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and a master's degree and doctorate in horticulture from Washington State University.