Industry Taking Action on Pollinators

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Stephen Denys is director of business management for Maizex Seeds and a long-time member of the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA). He's been following the issue of pollinator health closely since the debate over honeybee losses and their connection to the use of neonicotinoids flared up five years ago.

Pollinator protection has been a hot-button issue in Canada for the last five years. We look at some of the efforts in this country to protect pollinators and what the implications of them could be for the seed sector.

Recent headlines regarding overwintering of honeybees in Canada and the rest of North America over the past decade have often not been good. Annual honeybee colony losses have averaged 25.03 per cent in Canada since 2007, while the rate in the U.S. was slightly higher at 28.4 per cent.

That’s why a recent report out of the U.S. was welcomed as good news by members of the agricultural sectors and scientific communities on both sides of the border. In May 2017, the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), announced 21.1 per cent of managed colonies in the U.S. were lost over the winter of 2016-17. That number represents an improvement of 5.8 per cent over the previous winter and is well below the nation’s average during the past decade.

There is reason for optimism north of the border. According to the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA), the number of overwintering colony losses in Canada the past two years was well below the national average for the past decade (16.8 per cent in 2015-16 and 16.4 per cent in 2014-15).

“I think the fact the overwintering losses continue to decline shows that the cooperative working practices that have been emphasized the last few years are working, that beekeepers are stepping up their management on managing health-related issues with bees and growers are starting to modify their practices, understanding they have to use agronomic practices that help ensure a healthy environment for pollinators as well,” says Calgary-based Paul Thiel, vice-president of product development and regulatory science for the Crop Science Division of Bayer in Canada.

“Here in Canada, we’re very reliant on honeybees for our InVigor hybrid canola seed production. It’s essential for our business and for our customers — this hybrid canola could not be grown without the pollination service they provide.”

Several efforts are currently underway in this country to help protect honeybees and other pollinators such as bumblebees, and butterflies.

From Emotion to Science

Stephen Denys is director of business management for Maizex Seeds and a long-time member of the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA). He’s been following the issue of pollinator health closely since the debate over honeybee losses and their connection to the use of neonicotinoids flared up five years ago.

Denys says he’s been encouraged by the efforts made by the ag industry, government and other groups to promote pollinator health and protect natural habitats. Even more encouraging, he says, is the fact that the debate over treatment methods appears to be shifting away from being emotion-driven to science-based.

“The concern from the seed industry is that we’ve been successful at agriculture on this continent and in Western civilization because we’ve always taken a scientific approach to things,” says Denys, a former president of the CSTA.

“We don’t make decisions emotionally — we look at the science and then [use that] to make a decision. If the science showed you’ve got a real issue and you’ve got to make a change, farmers here have always adapted to that change and industry has adapted to that change.”

Denys says one of the things the seed industry needs to do is work together to better educate the public about what it has accomplished to date and “walk them through the evolution of why we’re doing the things we’re doing today.”

New Products in the Pipeline

Bayer has teamed up with several industry partners and organizations as part of the Bees Matter initiative. The outreach program aims to share information on honeybee health in Canada with the Canadian public and raise awareness with everyone from agricultural producers to backyard gardeners about practices they can adopt to ensure pollinator health. Bayer is also part of a bee health roundtable group spearheaded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that has been tasked with identifying and addressing risks and opportunities related to bee health.

One of the projects the company is involved with that will be of interest to the seed sector is the creation of a new fluency agent for negative pressure air seeders. In the past, a mixture of talc and graphite was used to expedite the movement of corn and other seed as it was vacuumed through the seeder. The wax-based fluency agent means there is far less dust created when treated seed exits the seeder.

“There’s been a significant reduction in the creation of any dust that might contain the seed treatment compound,” Thiel says. “It’s been effective and the growers have adopted it. They’re very interested in maintaining the biodiversity and the natural surroundings of their farms.”

Bayer is also working on a new miticide designed to help beekeepers control the Varroa mite, which has been referred to as the vampire of the honeybee industry. There are currently few ways to control the deadly parasite, which originated in Asia. Research has indicated the strips can control as much as 95 per cent of mites.

“It will give a rotational option to beekeepers so they are not as reliant on too few compounds and help to reduce the potential for resistance development in the Varroa mite population,” Thiel says.

First-of-its-Kind Study

While pollinators have been making plenty of news, knowledge of their habits and habitats here in Canada remains lacking.

Nigel Raine, a pollinator expert at the University of Guelph and Rebanks family chair in pollinator conservation, is seeking to change that. Raine is leading a team of researchers that will be monitoring pollinator activity at 50 different locations throughout the province of Ontario as part of a multi-year study that began in 2016. It’s believed to be the first time a study of this kind has been conducted on such a large scale anywhere in Canada.

“What we’re hoping to get is a broader picture of the distribution of wild pollinator species and how they’re related to different habitat types and different land use categories. We’re trying to include everything from provincial parks and conservation areas through to intensive agriculture and even some urban sites,” Raine says.

“The main aim the first few years is to get a baseline to see which species are where. If we can see areas where they have very healthy populations, we can look at the types of habitats in that area and we can say this is the sort of matrix that we want to look at [being part of the landscape] on a scale that pollinators need.”

One of the biggest challenges with the study, according to Raine, is the large number of different pollinators that call Canada home. There are more than 850 species of bees in this country, with most of them being solitary ground-dwellers.

Raine says the study has potential implications for the agriculture industry in not only Ontario but the rest of the country, since three-quarters of the leading food crops are pollinated by some form of animal. The data from the study could eventually help determine where pollinator habitats need to be located and how widely they should be distributed.

As for the seed sector, Raine says the study could lead to more integration with industry in terms of how plants, particularly native plants, are sourced to create the mixes for habitats that will support pollinators and wildlife in general. It could also increase demand for seed required to produce pollinator-friendly habitats in some cases, he adds.

Raising Public Awareness

Pollinator Partnership Canada (PPC) is a registered non-profit that does mission-based work across the country aimed at promoting and protecting pollinators and their ecosystems. It’s comprised of more than 140 stakeholder organizations including university faculty and researchers, farmers, corporate agriculture, seed producers and corporations with an environmental ethics platform.

It’s one of the partners behind the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a campaign to register one million public and private spaces as pollinator habitats. It’s also created a series of 15 regional guides designed to help gardeners, farmers and land managers select plants for pollinator-friendly habitats.

The partnership has also been one of the driving forces behind the creation of a series of so-called bee hotels across the country. The project was started in 2014 in conjunction with the Fairmont hotel chain to build sustainable resting places, or ‘hotels’, for solitary bees.

PPC research director Vicki Wojcik says it’s difficult to qualify the impact the hotels are having on bee populations. However, she says the project has had a huge impact in terms of raising awareness regarding the importance of pollinator health.

“We often have more of an opportunity to get people interested in the concept within a more urbanized context. Eventually, over time, the idea does take hold,” she says.

The partnership has also teamed with Bayer and the University of Guelph to look at how cover crops can be used to enhance pollinator nutrition. “What this research study is trying to see is what kind of plant-pollinator interaction we see with cover crops so that we can give farmers more tools,” Wojcik says.

DowDuPont Agriculture Division Announces New Premium Seed Brand

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DowDuPont Agriculture Division is launching a new premium global seed brand — Brevant — in Canada, Latin America and select European countries in 2018.

The Brevant brand will replace the Dow Seeds brand over the coming months following the merger of Dow and DuPont. In Brazil, it will replace the Coodetec and Biogene brand products.

The global launch of the Brevant brand was unveiled in Cascavel, Brazil, at the Show Rural Coopavel (Farm Show) one of the region’s most important farm shows.

Visit www.Brevant.com.

 

Should the Seed Sector Start from Scratch?

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The new Seed Synergy green paper lays out a proposed vision for a next-generation Canadian seed system.

They key to a successful 21st-century Canadian seed industry is a modernized seed system that effectively attracts investment, fosters innovation, and delivers new and tailored seed traits to customers efficiently.

That’s according to the new green paper issued by the Seed Synergy Collaboration Project Team, which is made up of members of our industry six associations and is working to develop a next-generation seed system for the country via the Seed Synergy project.

First announced in 2016, the Seed Synergy project is being undertaken by all six associations that make up the seed industry — Canadian Seed Institute, CropLife Canada, Canadian Seed Growers’ Association, Canadian Seed Trade Association, Commercial Seed Analysts Association of Canada, and the Canadian Plant Technology Agency.

The project kicked into full gear after a series of annual meetings in 2017, at which the boards of all six associations gathered to discuss the project and how to move forward.

According to the new green paper — the precursor to a Seed Synergy white paper to be released in the coming months — Canada’s seed system is in danger of imploding due to a number of factors, among them the fact that our system is an old and arguably out-dated one.

In addition, it argues that while Canada has an excellent national system assuring and tracing the genetic identity and origin of seed in the marketplace, seed sold as common seed does not provide these benefits, nor contribute directly to the seed system.

These factors, the green paper says, limit both domestic and export market-driven growth for Canadian producers, and if not addressed will place Canada at a productivity disadvantage relative to its international competitors.

As a result, the green paper argues that a revamped seed system is needed in Canada, one that delivers:

  • Improved profitability, which will in turn stimulate the investment needed to deliver a steady stream of new product innovation and growth;
  • A more efficient governance model for the seed system, where stakeholder organizations work in tight collaboration with each other and government in potentially new configurations;
  • Regulations that make sense and that are easier to understand, navigate, and comply with;
  • A system that better adapts to change, and responds and adjusts to sector needs on an ongoing basis;
  • A competitive environment that has space for businesses of all sizes to be successful and competitive, not just the biggest players with the most resources.

“In this context, the case for change is clear. To realize its full potential, Canada needs to rethink the core policies, legislative and regulatory frameworks, and associated institutional arrangements that make up the seed system of today. The rules and practices simply have to change, to deliver a more responsive, transparent, and customer-focused system, and to make Canada an attractive investment market for both large and small businesses.”

Major Reforms

The Seed Synergy project team is proposing major seed industry reforms in the areas of:

  1. Research & Development: the green paper proposes a new, risk-based assessment model that sets regulatory requirements in proportion to the projected risk of new products. “Government will continue to lead oversight of the system, and government-sectoral coordination needs to be enhanced to define regulatory standards that make sense.”
  2. Market Entry and Commercialization: proposes replacing the current variety registration and variety eligibility for certification regimes with an integrated system, anchored in a product profile for all approved seed products, containing all regulatory and commercial information relevant to that product in one, easily accessible place or virtual space, with access to confidential business information about a product limited to those granted explicit access to it.
  3. Production and processing: proposes a modernized pedigreed seed system that will facilitate an increase in pedigreed seed use and a reduction in incentives for common seed production, as new high-performing protected varieties replace older ones. “We propose an expansion of options for producing seed under comprehensive quality management systems that do not require third-party crop inspections but which are backed by third-party audit frameworks.”
  4. Sales and distribution: proposes a universal seed lot listing system, where seed for sale is listed along with at least a declaration of identity and quality.

It also proposes a new value creation model that enables technology transfer and innovation and drives economic growth, and which features a seed sale listing system that brings increased transparency and utility to seed sales across the country, and allows for more efficient protections of intellectual property rights and commercial transactions.

Finally, the green paper proposes improving governance of the seed system overall to sustain these reforms, and to better coordinate priorities across the seed and agricultural sectors. It suggests creating an “anchoring organization” that would perform many of the functions proposed herein.

“This could take the form of a single organization or a formal network of organizations or parts thereof,” the paper says.

To read the full green paper, visit http://seedgrowers.ca/wp-content/uploads/Synergy-Green-Paper-5.3.pdf

Muendel Honoured with Alberta Pulse Industry Innovator Award

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Dr. Hans-Henning Muendel, left, presented with the Alberta Pulse Industry Innovator Award by APG Chair D’Arcy Hilgartner.

The Alberta Pulse Growers (APG) presented the fourth annual Alberta Pulse Industry Innovator Award to Dr. Hans-Henning Muendel, who was instrumental in developing numerous bean cultivars for Alberta growers.

“Each year, APG recognizes a person or organization whose progressive thinking and tireless efforts helped build Alberta’s pulse industry into the flourishing sector that it is today,” said APG Chair D’Arcy Hilgartner. “Dr. Muendel dedicated his career to developing the dry bean cultivars that now set the standard for small red, black, pinto and great northern cultivars in Western Canada. He truly deserves to receive the Alberta Pulse Industry Innovator Award for his many contributions.”

In 1996, there weren’t any dry bean cultivars being grown in Western Canada that had been bred in this region. Over the next 11 years, as the senior research scientist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Lethbridge, Muendel and his team developed 14 dry bean cultivars in seven bean classes, and co-developed one other new bean cultivar. Muendel’s bean breeding program concentrated on producing early maturing, upright bean cultivars that are well-suited to the short growing seasons of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Many of the dry bean cultivars from Muendel’s program also had improved resistance to white mould while maintaining high yield and quality. Muendel also served as an ex-officio director for Alberta Pulse Growers.

Zone 1 Director Rodney Volk had high praise for Muendel’s contributions to the pulse industry that continue to benefit dry bean growers like himself.

“Dr. Muendel was instrumental in establishing the breeding program that developed dry bean cultivars specific to southern Alberta growing conditions,” Volk said. “The success of dry bean production in southern Alberta today can be largely credited to his program’s development of local varieties with improved standability and disease resistance. Many of today’s pinto and great northern varieties still have a direct connection to the lines Dr. Muendel developed.”

Muendel said that he was honoured to learn that he was chosen as the recipient of the fourth annual Industry Innovator Award: “It has been 10 years since I retired, and now – with our bean varieties having spread throughout the Alberta dry bean growing area – on behalf of my breeding team, it is such an honour to accept this award.”

The Alberta Pulse Growers Commission represents 6,000 growers of field pea, dry bean, lentil, chickpea, faba bean and soybean in Alberta. Our vision is to have Alberta pulses recognized by consumers as environmentally friendly, healthy, nutritious, and recognized by all producers as being an essential element in a sustainable cropping system.

We Must Do More About Mental Health

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Lesley Kelly, left, and Kim Keller launched Do More Ag at FarmTech in Edmonton this week.

An important new initiative to get people in the agriculture community talking about mental health was launched this week.

The Do More Agriculture Foundation — a not-for-profit whose mission is to create a culture in ag where all producers are encouraged/empowered/supported to take care of their mental wellbeing — officially launched at the FarmTech conference in Edmonton on Jan. 30.

Do More Ag co-founder and farmer Kim Keller says this week’s launch is only the beginning of a conversation that will go on for years within the agriculture community.

While she says things are improving with regard to breaking down the stigma associated with mental illness in agriculture, there’s a long way to go to help farmers get the help they need if struggling with mental health issues.

“So much of a farmer or producer’s livelihood is out of their control. It’s market- or weather-based. At the same time, we have the culture in ag where we’re supposed to be tough and stoic and not talk about our feelings,” she says.

“Like the rest of society, there’s a lack of understanding and knowledge about mental health in agriculture. The fact farmers live in rural locations makes things even more challenging — it’s no secret that mental health resources in rural areas aren’t plentiful.”

At FarmTech, Keller and fellow Do More Ag co-founder, farmer Lesley Kelly, took part in a panel discussion moderated by Alberta Seed Guide publisher Shawn Brook about mental health in ag.

Anyone wishing to help out in the effort to raise awareness of mental health in agriculture is encouraged to contact the Do More Agriculture Foundation through the contact form at domore.ag.

Root Microbiome Valuable Key to Plants Surviving Drought

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Just as the microorganisms in our gut are increasingly recognized as important players in human health and behaviour, new research from the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) demonstrates that microorganisms are equally critical to the growth and health of plants. For example, plants that are able to recruit particular bacteria to their root microbiomes are much more drought resistant than their fellows, says UTM PhD candidate Connor Fitzpatrick, of the Department of Biology.

Connor Fitzpatrick

The plant’s root microbiome is the unique community of micro-organisms living in and on plant roots. Similar to the gut microbiome in animal species, the root microbiome is the interface between a plant and the world. The root microbiome is responsible for important functions such as nutrient uptake and signals, important to plant development.

Fitzpatrick’s study is published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. His exploration of the role of the root microbiome in plant health could eventually assist farmers to grow crops under drought-ridden conditions.

For the study, Fitzpatrick grew 30 species of plants found in the Greater Toronto Area from seed in identical soil mixtures in a laboratory setting. These included familiar plants like goldenrod, milkweed and asters. The plants were raised for a full growing season (16 weeks), with each species grown in both permissive and simulated drought conditions.

Fitzpatrick’s research explores the commonalities and differences among the root microbiomes of the various host plant species, dividing the microbiomes into the endosphere (microbes living inside roots) and rhizosphere (microbes living in the soil surrounding roots). He found variation across the 30 species, with related species having more similarity between microbiomes than diverse species.

“It’s as you would expect,” Fitzpatrick says. “Just as there are more similarities between a human’s gut microbiome and an ape’s than between a human’s and a mouse’s, the closer the relationship between plant species, the more similar their root microbiomes. It’s important to document as a way to better understand the evolutionary processes shaping the plant root microbiome.”

In addition to deepening our basic biological understanding of plant evolution and development, the research offers further avenues for study, including how and why some plants recruit bacteria that impact drought resistance while others don’t.

“If plants were able to enrich their root microbiomes with a particular group of bacteria, the Actinobacteria, they grew much better in drought conditions,” says Fitzpatrick. “All of our plants had access to this group of bacteria, but they also needed to have the ability to recruit it from the soil.”

In another finding that is consistent with the practice of crop rotation, Fitzpatrick showed that the more similar the composition of a plant’s root microbiome to that of the previous generation of a plant grown in that soil, the more the second-generation plant suffered.

“There is a complex web of interactions taking place that is difficult to disentangle and requires further inquiry,” Fitzpatrick says.

“Practically speaking, we need to understand how to sustain plants with all of the mounting stressors today, such as drought and an increase in pathogens (e.g., plant disease),” Fitzpatrick says. “The efforts to mitigate these issues are expensive and short-lived or very damaging to the environment. If we can harness naturally occurring interactions for these purposes, we’ll be much better off.”

Source: University of Toronto

PBR moves from education to enforcement

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Ottawa, ON – January 23, 2018 – SeCan has reached settlement with a number of western producers who were selling and/or advertising for sale varieties protected by PBR. “Our goal is to continue to educate” says Todd Hyra, Business Manager, Western Canada for SeCan. “Part of education is the willingness to take the step to enforce the rights on behalf of the breeder”.

Below are the most recent infringers listed by town, province and variety.

Cory Dawe Dinsmore SK AC® Strongfield Durum
Richard Erle Bredahl Shaunuvon SK AC® Strongfield Durum
Dylan Szakacs Melfort SK AC® Vesper VB CWRS
Chad Swan Plenty SK CDC Copeland Malt Barley
Ian Topham Eastend SK CDC Cowboy Feed Barley
G5 Farms Ltd. Oak River MB CDC Copeland Malt Barley
Clayton Miller Young SK CDC Copeland Malt Barley

“PBR has been in place for 25 years and ‘I did not know’ is no longer a suitable excuse,” says Lorne Hadley from CPTA. “It’s refreshing to see some willing to step forward and admit a mistake – these end very differently than cases where the infringer is reluctant to come clean. We never pursue an infringer without having evidence in hand.”

Awareness is the important first step and SeCan talks about the importance of PBR whenever possible. To stay on side Hadley points out a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Most new varieties have some form of protection – don’t assume a variety is not protected.
  2. If a variety is protected under PBR, it is illegal to sell common seed, even if you don’t use the variety name.
  3. Under PBR, it is OK to keep seed on your farm – as long as the farm-saved rights are not pre-empted by another agreement or contract.
  4. Under the new PBR ’91 rules, the buyer, the processer, and the seller are responsible for the infringement.
  5. Visit PBRfacts.ca for more information.

The goal of Plant Breeders’ Rights is to encourage investment in plant breeding in Canada. There is a misconception that PBR only benefits large companies – the fact is large companies often have other tools to protect their intellectual property (including patents and contracts). PBR is critically important for public breeders, (including universities) and smaller private breeders who may not have the resources or traits necessary to utilize other forms of protection.

How climate change alters plant growth

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Global warming affects more than just plant biodiversity – it even alters the way plants grow.

A team of researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) joined forces with the Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry (IPB) to discover which molecular processes are involved in plant growth.

In the current edition of the internationally renowned journal Current Biology, the group presents its latest findings on the mechanism controlling growth at high temperatures. In the future this could help breed plants that are adapted to global warming.

Plants react much more sensitively to fluctuations in temperature than animals. They are also unable to seek out warmer or cooler locations.

“When temperatures rise, plants grow taller in order to cool themselves off. Their stalks become taller and their leaves become narrower and grow farther apart. Yet this makes the plant more instable overall,” says Professor Marcel Quint, an agricultural scientist at MLU. This is noticeable, for example, during grain harvesting. Instable plants bend faster in the rain and generally produce less biomass. There is also a reduction in the proportion of key substances, like proteins, that can be stored in the grain kernel.

“While the correlation between temperature and plant growth at the macrolevel is relatively well understood, there are still many open questions at the molecular level. We are just starting to understand how plants detect the changes in temperature and translate this into specific reactions,” Quint notes.

Earlier studies have shown that the protein PIF4 directly controls plant growth and that this protein is also dependent on temperature. When it’s cold, PIF4 is less active – in other words the plant doesn’t grow. At higher temperatures, PIF4 activates growth-promoting genes and the plant grows taller.

“Up until now it had been unclear how the plant knows when to activate PIF4 and how much should be released,” says Quint. “There were large gaps in our knowledge about the exact signalling pathway of temperature-controlled growth.”

And that is precisely what the research group in Halle has now discovered. They investigated the growth behaviour of seedlings of the model plant thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana). Normally its seedlings form short stems at 20 C (68 F). These stems become considerably longer at 28 C (82.4 F). In the lab, the scientists identified plants with a gene defect which still only formed short stems at 28 C. Then they searched for possible reasons for this lack in growth. They discovered a hormone that activates the PIF4 gene at high temperatures, thus producing the protein. This reaction did not occur in the mutated plants.

“We have now discovered the role of this special hormone in the signalling pathway and have found a mechanism through which the growth process is positively regulated at higher temperatures,” says Quint.

The findings of the research group from Halle may help to breed plants in the future that remain stable even at high temperatures and are able to produce sufficient yields. To achieve this, the findings from the basic research on model plants first have to be transferred to cultivated plants like cereals.

 

Pot Genetics: Why cannabis strains don’t all live up to their billing

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Canopy Growth, a cannabis company in Smiths Falls, Ont., is actively breeding pot and drilling into its genetics to create new strains with consistent characteristics. (Photo Mia Sheldon/CBC)

Red Diesel, Moby Dick, Lemon Burst, or how about Girl Scout Cookies? All names for “bud,” the cannabis flower, and when the black market product goes legal in Canada this summer expect some heavy marketing of fancy names and their tantalizing effects.

But plant scientists say the “sell” is hazy. Those buds have a mixed-up lineage and don’t always match what’s advertised.

It’s about genetics, and cannabis is a mixed breed, to say the least.

With more than 100 creative names for pot, each variant is said to have slightly different properties and that translates into different effects, according to vendors.

READ THE FULL STORY

Uncovering a Genetic Mechanism to Enhance Yield Potential in Cereal Crops

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Andrea Eveland, Ph.D.

Solving the world’s food, feed and bioenergy challenges requires integration of multiple approaches and diverse skills. Andrea Eveland, Ph.D., assistant member at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and her team identified a genetic mechanism that controls developmental traits related to grain production in cereals. The work was performed in Setaria viridis, an emerging model system for grasses that is closely related to economically important cereal crops and bioenergy feed stocks such as maize, sorghum, switchgrass and sugarcane.

The Eveland laboratory’s research findings, “Brassinosteroids modulate meristem fate and differentiation of unique inflorescence morphology in Setaria viridis”, were recently published in the journal The Plant Cell. In their study, Yang et al. mapped a genetic locus in the S. viridis genome that controls growth of sterile branches called bristles, which are produced on the grain-bearing inflorescences of some grass species. Their research revealed that these sterile bristles are initially programmed to be spikelets; grass-specific structures that produce flowers and grain. Eveland’s work showed that conversion of a spikelet to a bristle is determined early in inflorescence development and regulated by a class of plant hormones called brassinosteroids (BRs), which modulate a range of physiological processes in plant growth, development and immunity. In addition to converting a sterile structure to a seed-bearing one, the research also showed that localized disruption of BR synthesis can lead to production of two flowers per spikelet rather than the single one that typically forms. These BR-dependent phenotypes therefore represent two potential avenues for enhancing grain production in millets, including subsistence crops in many developing countries that remain largely untapped for genetic improvement.

“This work is a great demonstration of how Setaria viridis can be leveraged to gain fundamental insights into the mechanisms that govern seed production in the grasses – our most important group of plants that includes corn, sorghum, rice, wheat and barley,” said Thomas Brutnell, Ph.D., Director of the Enterprise Institute for Renewable Fuels, Danforth Center. “It’s also worth noting that this project was conceived and work initiated after Dr. Eveland joined the Danforth Center – an impressive feat for a junior faculty member that speaks to both the advantages of working on a model system and the great team that she has assembled at the Danforth Center.”

At the Danforth Center, Eveland’s research focuses on the developmental mechanisms that control plant architecture traits in cereal crops. Specifically, she investigates how plant organs are formed from stem cells, and how variation in the underlying gene regulatory networks can precisely modulate plant form. Her team integrates both computational and experimental approaches to explore how perturbations to these gene networks can alter morphology, both within a species and across the grasses, with the ultimate goal of defining targets for improving grain yield in cereals.

“The genetics and genomics tools that are emerging for Setaria enable more rapid dissection of molecular pathways such as this one, and allow us to manipulate them directly in a system that is closely related to the food crops we aim to improve,” said Eveland. “It means we are just that much closer to designing and deploying optimal architectures for cereal crops. The prospect of leveraging these findings for improvement of related grasses that are also orphan crop species, such as pearl and foxtail millets, is especially exciting.”