Combination of resistance genes offers better protection for wheat against powdery mildew

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Wheat line without Pm3 alleles, infected by powdery mildew. (Photo: UZH)

University of Zurich (UZH) plant researchers have tested newly developed wheat lines with improved resistance to powdery mildew in field trials. They have demonstrated that a combination of two variations of a resistance gene provides wheat with better protection against the fungal disease.

For several years now, UZH researchers have been investigating a wheat gene that confers resistance to powdery mildew (Blumeria graminis f. sp. tritici). The gene, called the Pm3 resistance gene, exists in different variations, so called alleles. In previous studies, plant researcher Beat Keller and his team demonstrated that single Pm3 alleles are able to confer resistance against powdery mildew fungi. And yet, a single resistance gene can quickly lose its effectiveness. Thus when it comes to plant breeding, it is important to combine multiple resistance genes. This is exactly what researchers at UZH have now tested in field trials using transgenic wheat lines.

The researchers created new wheat lines by crossbreeding transgenic Pm3 lines. This resulted in four new wheat lines, each containing two different Pm3 gene variations. “These four new wheat lines showed improved resistance against powdery mildew in field trials compared with their parental lines – during the field seasons 2015 to 2017,” explains Teresa Koller, lead author of the study.

Back in the laboratory, the scientists proved that the parental lines’ gene activity is added up in the newly created lines. Each Pm3 allele in the four new lines displayed the same activity as in the parental line, which results in increased overall activity, since it came from two different gene variations. “The improved resistance against powdery mildew is the result of the increased total transgene activity as well as the combination of the two Pm3 gene variations,” summarizes Teresa Koller. The high overall activity of resistance genes did not cause any negative effects for the development of the wheat or its yield.

The findings of these trials improve our general knowledge of the immune system of plants, and in particular of fungal disease resistance of wheat. Besides contributing to fundamental research in the area of plants’ immune systems, the findings can also be applied in wheat breeding. Thanks to the precise testing of Pm3 alleles, the best variations and combinations are identified and can then be used directly in traditional breeding by crossbreeding them into modern wheat varieties.

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

Self-defense for plants

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This cartoon depicts a leaf with areas of damage (brown spots) caused by the plant’s innate immune response. The superimposed schematic shows SOBER1’s three-dimensional structure. (Courtesy Salk Institute)

Salk scientists characterize unusual plant immune response to bacterial infection

When you see brown spots on otherwise healthy green leaves, you may be witnessing a plant’s immune response as it tries to keep a bacterial infection from spreading. Some plants are more resistant to such infections than others, and plant biologists want to understand why. Salk Institute scientists studying a plant protein called SOBER1 recently discovered one mechanism by which, counterintuitively, plants seem to render themselves less resistant to infection.

The work, which appeared in Nature Communications on December 19, 2017, sheds light on plant resistance generally and could lead to strategies to boost plants’ natural immunity or to better contain infections that threaten to destroy an entire agricultural crop.

“There are a lot of losses in crop yields due to bacteria that kill plants,” says the paper’s senior author Joanne Chory, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, director of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and a 2018 recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. “With this work, we set out to understand the underlying mechanism of how resistance works, and to see how general it is.”

One of the ways plants fight bacterial infection is by killing off their own cells in which bacterial proteins are detected. But some bacteria have evolved a counter strategy—injecting special proteins that suppress the plant’s immune response by adding small, disabling chemical tags called acetyl groups to immune molecules. This process is called acetylation. What makes certain plants able to resist these bacterial counter measures while others succumb to infection remains unclear.

As a means to better understand such pathogen-plant interactions, Chory’s team turned to the well-studied weed Arabidopsis thaliana and, in particular, an enzyme called SOBER1—which had previously been reported to suppress the weed’s immune response to a bacterial protein known as AvrBsT. While it may seem counterintuitive to use immune suppression to study infection resistance, the Salk biologists thought doing so could yield useful information.

The researchers started by determining SOBER1’s amino acid sequence—the particular order of building blocks that gives a protein its basic identity. Intriguingly, they found it was very similar to a cancer-pathway-related human enzyme. This enzyme contains a characteristic tunnel into which proteins with certain types of modifications can fit and be cut as part of the enzymatic reaction. It turns out SOBER1 can be classified as part of a vast protein superfamily known as alpha/beta hydrolases. These enzymes share a common core structure but are very flexible in the chemical reactions they catalyze, which range from the breakdown of fat to the detoxification of chemicals called peroxides.

This image shows four areas of a tobacco leaf in which AvrBsT protein has been produced, along with the normal version of the counter-reacting deacetylase (AtSOBER1, upper left) and several mutant versions. The right side shows SOBER1 mutants in which the newly discovered substrate tunnel has been manipulated. The normal version of SOBER1 has the healthiest-looking tissue, because the plant’s tissue-killing immune response has been blocked by SOBER1.
(Courtesy Salk Institute)

Next, they used a more than 100-year-old technique called X-ray crystallography to determine SOBER1’s three-dimensional structure. While similar to the human enzyme, the plant enzyme’s tunnel had two extra amino acids sticking down from the top: one at the entrance and one in the middle.

“When we saw those, we realized they had to have a dramatic effect on function because they basically block the tunnel,” says Salk research associate and co–first author Marco Bürger.

To discover what the purpose might be, Bürger and co–first author Björn Willige, also a research associate, used substrates (molecules that enzymes act on) with different lengths and biochemically tested how well they fit in the enzyme and whether they could be cut. Only certain types fit and were cut—very short acetyl groups. This suggested that SOBER1 is a deacetylase—a class of enzyme that removes acetyl groups. Furthermore, the team mutated SOBER1 and thus opened the blocked tunnel. With this change, Bürger and Willige engineered an enzyme that lost its strong specificity for short acetyl groups and instead preferred longer substrates.

“For the initial biochemistry experiments, we used established, artificial substrates,” says Willige. “But next we wanted to see what would happen in plants.”

For this, they used tobacco plants—which have large leaves that are easy to work with—and a bacterium with a protein called AvrBsT, known to trigger acetylation. They produced AvrBsT in different regions of tobacco leaves along with SOBER1 and several mutated (and thus nonfunctional) versions of the enzyme.

Leaves producing AvrBsT had brown patches of dead tissue, indicating that AvrBsT had initiated a cell death program to curtail the systemic spreading of the pathogen. Leaves that produced AvrBsT together with SOBER1 looked healthy, indicating that SOBER1 reversed the action of AvrBsT. Strikingly, mutated SOBER1 versions with an opened tunnel were not able to prevent the tissue from dying. From this, the researchers concluded that deacetylation must be the underlying chemical reaction leading to suppression of the plant’s immune response.

The tobacco tests supported the idea of SOBER1 being a deacetylase that would remove acetyl groups added by bacterial proteins. Without the acetyl groups tagging proteins, the plant didn’t recognize them as foreign and thus didn’t mount a cell-killing immune response. The leaves looked healthier because cells weren’t dying.

“SOBER’s function is surprising because it keeps infected tissue alive, which puts the plant at risk,” says Chory, who also holds the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology at Salk. “But we are just beginning to understand these types of mechanisms, and there could very well be conditions in which the actions of SOBER1 is beneficial.”

Further tests showed that the activity and function of SOBER1 is not restricted to the weed Arabidopsis thaliana, but also exists in a plant called oilseed rape demonstrating that the findings of Chory’s lab could be applied to agricultural crops and biofuel resources.

Bürger and Willige would next like to begin screening for chemical inhibitors that could block SOBER1, thereby allowing plants to have a full immune response to pathogenic bacteria.

The work was funded by Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the Human Frontier Science Program and The Pioneer Postdoctoral Endowment Fund.

Speed breeding technique sows seeds of new green revolution

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Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom was one of the authors of a new study that reveals a method called "speed breeding."

Pioneering new technology is set to accelerate the global quest for crop improvement in a development which echoes the Green Revolution of the post war period.

The speed-breeding platform developed by teams at the John Innes Centre, University of Queensland and University of Sydney, uses a glasshouse or an artificial environment with enhanced lighting to create intense day-long regimes to speed up the search for better performing crops.

Using the technique, the team has achieved wheat generation from seed to seed in just eight weeks. These results appear in Nature Plants.

This means that it is now possible to grow as many as six generations of wheat every year – a threefold increase on the shuttle-breeding techniques currently used by breeders and researchers.

Dr. Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre, Norwich, a lead author on the paper, explains why speed is of the essence: “Globally, we face a huge challenge in breeding higher yielding and more resilient crops. Being able to cycle through more generations in less time, will allow us to more rapidly create and test genetic combinations and find the best combinations for different environments.”

For many years the improvement rates of several staple crops have stalled, leading to a significant impediment in the quest to feed the growing global population and address the impacts of climate change.

Speed breeding, says Wulff, offers a potential new solution to a global challenge for the 21st century.

“People said you may be able to cycle plants fast, but they will look tiny and insignificant, and only set a few seed. In fact, the new technology creates plants that look better and are healthier than those using standard conditions. One colleague could not believe it when he first saw the results.”

The exciting breakthrough has the potential to rank, in terms of impact, alongside the shuttle-breeding techniques introduced after the second world war as part of the green revolution.

Wulff goes on to say: “I would like to think that in 10 years from now you could walk into a field and point to plants whose attributes and traits were developed using this technology.”

This technique uses fully controlled growth environments and can also be scaled up to work in a standard glass house. It uses LED lights optimized to aid photosynthesis in intensive regimes of up to 22 hours per day.

LED lights significantly reduce the cost compared to sodium vapour lamps which have long been in widespread use but are ineffective because they generate much heat and emit poor quality light.

The international team also prove that the speed breeding technique can be used for a range of important crops. They have achieved up to six generations per year for bread wheat, durum wheat, barley, pea and chickpea; and four generations for canola. This is a significant increase compared with widely used commercial breeding techniques.

Speed breeding, when employed alongside conventional field-based techniques, can be an important tool to enable advances in understanding the genetics of crops.

“Speed breeding as a platform can be combined with lots of other technologies such as CRISPR gene editing to get to the end result faster,” explains Dr. Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland.

The study shows that traits such as plant pathogen interactions, plant shape and structure, and flowering time can be studied in detail and repeated using the technology.

The speed breeding technology has been welcomed by wheat breeders who have become early adopters.

Ruth Bryant, wheat pathologist at RAGT Seeds Ltd., Essex, UK, said: “Breeders are always looking for ways to speed up the process of getting a variety to market so we are really interested in the concept of speed breeding. We are working closely with Dr. Wulff’s group at the John Innes Centre to develop this method in a commercial setting.”

Dr. Allan Rattey, a wheat crop breeder with Australian company Dow AgroSciences, has used the technology to breed wheat with tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting (PHS), a major problem in Australia.

“Environmental control for effective PHS screening and the long time taken to cycle through several cycles of recurrent selection were major bottle necks. The speed breeding and targeted selection platform have driven major gains for both of these areas of concerns.”

Source: John Innes Centre

Eye in the sky

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Jan Zalud from JZAerial collaborated with Chris Neeser in his research work. (Photo courtesy JZAerial/AAF)

The benefits of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones as crop scouting tools are obvious. They enable farmers to spot problems in the field they didn’t even know they had, often more quickly and easily than traditional scouting methods.

That — coupled with the fact UAVs have dropped dramatically in price in recent years — is why more growers in Alberta are utilizing them to help nurture their crops and improve overall farm management.

 Markus Weber is co-founder of Landview Drones, an Edmonton-based company that sells fixed wing and multi-rotor UAVs and also provides operator training. Since the start of the business in 2015, the vast majority of their customers have been farmers and agronomists, reflecting the rising interest in drone technology in the agriculture sector.

 Weber says his company integrates everything a farmer or agronomist requires in order to operate a drone themselves, rather than hiring a professional UAV service provider.

“We outfit them with everything they need, from the drone itself to the sensors and all the software they need to be able to process the data; and lastly, we would provide the training to be able to do it legally and safely,” he says.

UAVs today are generally easier to operate than ever. Weber notes while some of their farm customers originally bought drones for fun, they later discovered how useful they could be for spotting problems in their fields.

“People often buy them for recreational uses, and then once they start using them, they realize what a great scouting tool it makes and they start using it on their farm,” Weber says.

“Almost without fail, once they get an aerial view of their farm from relatively low altitude, they’re finding out about problems they didn’t know they had.”

Weber says the insights gained from an eye in the sky can help assess general crop health and inform farm management decisions, such as where to spray to best control weeds, insects and disease.

He adds drones are also useful for spotting patterns in the field that could indicate serious issues with farm equipment, such as a problem with a seeder not operating properly that may be causing uneven germination in a field.

 “All these kinds of things that just become plainly visible from the air aren’t as easily visible from the ground,” says Weber.

“If you can discover a problem with your equipment that you can remedy, that’s worth thousands of dollars to a farmer. So that currently is providing the most value.”

Robin Harrison is chief drone pilot for JTS Agrow, a farm input dealership near Bruce, Alta., that also provides UAV services for farmers. He believes time is a big reason why drones are growing in popularity among farmers and agronomists.

“I think that it’s probably a time saver and increases the efficiency of your scouting time,” Harrison says. “You can go out and take a look at a field much more quickly and in much more detail [with a drone] than you can on foot or by just driving by the field.”

Drone Data

Ag drones are capable of producing a lot of data, such as Normalized Difference Vegetation Index or NDVI maps, which can be used to assess variability in crop vigour. But managing vegetative remote sensing data such as this can be a daunting prospect, which is why many growers who want to go beyond simple crop scouting and have their fields mapped for precision ag purposes, such as variable rate input applications, often choose to go the service provider route.

“I think the biggest thing that might scare growers off is the data processing and the technology itself,” says Harrison. They’re not familiar with it necessarily and it might kind of spook them a little bit. They would likely tend to maybe hire somebody like me to do it for them, and then they don’t have to worry about that part.”

Chris Neeser, a weed scientist with the pest surveillance section of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, has utilized UAVs in some of his research work. He believes those utilizing drones for precision ag need to develop the necessary expertise to be able use the software and interpret the data correctly.

“The technology itself is always changing and developing rapidly,” Neeser says. “There’s still a learning curve associated with using UAVs.”

While he believes drones can perform a very useful role, Neeser stresses the current technology is not yet up to par with what a human scout can do — namely diagnosing a problem after it’s been spotted.

“I would say UAVs are useful for field scouting but they’re not a replacement for boots in the field. You still have to go in there and verify what the images show, because the images do not necessarily provide you with the details you need to make a diagnostic of what’s going on,” he says.

Weber agrees the analytical capabilities of drones may be limited, but feels it likely won’t that much longer due to rapid advances in artificial intelligence and the accelerating pace of sensor development.

“The flight technology has gone way ahead of the ability to produce good data from it. Right now, there are many kinds of maps you can generate with it but none of those really tell you what the problem is in a particular part of the field — they just tell you where there might be a problem,” Weber says.

“I see in the next two to three years that drone sensor and software technology will change drastically through the use of better spectral data and machine learning. True diagnostic maps will make the biggest change in the industry.”

Crop Gene Discovery Gets to the Root of Food Security

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Researchers from The University of Queensland have discovered that a key gene which controls flowering time in wheat and barley crops also directs the plant’s root growth.

Project leader Dr. Lee Hickey from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation(QAAFI) said the discovery was a major breakthrough in understanding the genetics of root development and could boost food security by allowing researchers to breed crops better adapted to a range of environments.

“Wheat and barley are ancient crops and humans have been growing them for thousands of years,” Hickey says. “Over the years, farmers and more recently plant breeders, have made significant progress selecting for above-ground traits, yet have largely ignored the ‘hidden half’ of the plant – its roots.

“Our discovery that the VRN1 gene, which is known to regulate flowering in wheat and barley crops, also plays a role in the plant’s ability to respond to gravity, thereby directing root growth and determining the overall shape of the root system.”

Hickey says this unexpected insight into the underground functions of the VRN1 gene has major implications for optimizing cereal crops, as crop varieties with improved root systems could dramatically improve farm productivity.

“A particular variant of VRN1 in barley, known as the Morex allele, simultaneously induced early flowering and maintained a ‘steep, cheap and deep’ root system,” Hickey says.

“This is exciting because flowering time is a key driver for yield and the VRN1 gene appears to offer a dual mechanism that could not only boost crop yield but also improve water and nutrient acquisition through a deeper and more efficient root system.”

The root gene discovery was part of an international collaboration with a team of scientists from Justus Liebig University in Germany, led by Professor Rod Snowdon. The group in Germany provided insight of the gene’s involvement in shaping root development for winter wheats grown throughout Europe, as well as validation of rooting behaviour in field trials.

Another collaborator was Dr. Ben Trevaskis from CSIRO who provided important experimental wheat and barley materials critical for validating the gene’s role in root development.

PhD student Hannah Robinson, along with Dr. Kai Voss-Fels who has recently joined QAAFI as a Research Fellow were joint first authors for the study published this week in high impact journal Molecular Plant.

“While our discovery is exciting, more research is needed to identify other key genes involved to effectively optimise root growth in future crops for farmers,” Robinson says.

“Also, we need to determine the preferred root system architecture for different growing regions, which will help plant breeders develop more productive crops, despite the increased variability of future climates,” she says.

The cereal root research at The University of Queensland and wheat phenology research at CSIRO is supported by the Grains Research Development Corporation, and Robinson’s PhD scholarship.

Source: University of Queensland

The 4-P Funding Model

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(Photo courtesy Harpinder S. Randhawa)

Taking a look at one very successful Alberta-based initiative.

The 4-P model (public/private/producer partnership) for crop R&D involves funding contributions from government, private companies and producers. This type of initiative is seen as an effective way to pool resources and ensure the growth of total overall investment in variety development in Canada – and according to those directly involved, the 4-P involving Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC), Canterra Seeds and the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC) is no exception.

This particular 4-P started in 2014 and runs through to the end of 2018, but Tom Steve reports that discussions about renewal will begin in early 2018.

Tom Steve

“It’s the main CPSR (Canada Prairie Spring Red) wheat breeding program in Western Canada,” says Steve, general manager at the AWC. “Three-quarters of this wheat class is grown in Alberta as it’s well-suited to the climate. It goes into both feed and milling markets.”

The partnership’s main benefit for producers in his view is the continuation of a program that was in danger of being shut down. The main CPSR breeder at AAFC in Winnipeg had retired and the program was in jeopardy, he recalls. AAFC put out a request for partnership proposals in early 2014, and Canterra Seeds submitted one that was accepted in March. AAFC then held discussions with multiple grower groups that had expressed potential interest in participating, and by mid-2014, notes Canterra Seeds president and CEO David Hansen, AWC had joined the partnership with the full support of his company. All three parties are contributing $3.4 million in cash and in-kind items over the five-year timeline.

“It’s overall a great way to develop new varieties with higher yields and better disease resistance,” Steve notes. “Alberta farmers, through the AWC, will get a share of royalties on seed sales, likely starting with a variety called AAC Crossfield in the fall of 2018, and those royalties will go back into further research investments.”

Two other lines are already also approved for registration, and Hansen says there are many new candidates in the variety registration trials “that are showing amazing promise.”

Harpinder S. Randhawa

Dr. Harpinder Singh Randhawa, based at AAFC Lethbridge, is the partnership’s breeder behind these varieties. He notes the 4-P model is not just about funding, but about providing other resources critical to ensuring a strong breeding program moving forward.

“With AAFC sites that have closed, for example the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg around 2012, and also the downsizing of satellite research sites, there really was no room for my breeding work,” he explains. “Through this partnership, I have access to trial sites through Canterra and this is very important. Money is certainly needed for variety development, but you also need other resources. To have the increased research capacity over a greater geographic area in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta greatly benefits the research. Canterra is also providing evaluation work.”

Canterra Seeds is also providing insight into commercial opportunities, says Hansen, as well as the ability to use different production and commercialization models based on what is best for a particular variety to maximize its distribution and value. In addition, Canterra is providing links to end-users and an understanding of their requirements in Canada and the U.S. in order to help guide development of new varieties in the program.

Beyond all this, Steve lists another benefit of this arrangement for producers: AWC’s close relationship with Dr. Randhawa. “It’s a great exchange of information,” he says.

Hansen agrees. “The relationship among the three partners continues to grow,” he notes. “We are well-aligned, and with an effective governance model in place we are able to work well towards the objectives of the agreement. Partnerships make sense when you are able to bring various elements required to the table to further the advancement, versus everyone trying to do things on their own. Wheat is a very complex crop that requires a significant investment in order for it to remain a competitive option for the farmer. This may not apply for all crops, but for wheat and durum, this does seem to be true, and so the arrangement definitely makes sense.”

David Hansen

Hansen adds that Canterra Seeds’ interest in continuing the three-way relationship is strong, and that it fully intends to explore new opportunities, including perhaps the involvement of Limagrain Cereals Research Canada if it makes sense. Limagrain and Canterra Seeds have a partnership, and this relationship could provide opportunity for expanded future collaboration, including germplasm and breeding tools.

For his part, Steve notes that for AWC, the 4-P model for breeding Canada Prairie Spring Red wheat has been very successful and he looks forward to discussions on a renewal.

“We really like this model, and with it, we have the resources in place for a world-class program,” he says. “We look forward to more varieties over the next few years.”

Harpinder adds that from his perspective, it would be wonderful to continue on, and he looks forward to sitting down and discussing it early next year.

“It’s been wonderful,” he says, “to work both with Canterra and also the Alberta Wheat Commission.”

Alberta Regional Variety Trials

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In 2017, the cereal and flax RVT program under ARVAC expects to generate $76,700 through a $1,300 annual testing fee charged for each variety being tested, excluding checks. (Photo: Janet Kanters)

The Alberta Regional Variety Testing program (RVT) is the most trusted source of variety information for producers in Alberta. Farmers need accurate, regional and the most current variety information to stay competitive.

The Alberta Regional Variety Advisory Committee (ARVAC), the official body that establishes policy for the variety-testing program, takes this responsibility very seriously, and constantly strives to present the data in the most appropriate and understandable manner.

According to Alex Fedko, RVT program coordinator and crop research technologist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, the goal of the RVT is to provide cereal, flax and pulse crop growers, and industry and extension specialists with scientifically valid crop variety performance information under different agro-climatic conditions. Data is published in the Alberta Seed Guide and in Alberta Agriculture’s Varieties of Cereal and Oilseed Crops for Alberta pamphlet.

“There are many sources of variety information for producers,” says Fedko. “However, this program is unique because the data comes from two independent sources: the co-op trials where new crop cultivars are tested before registration and data from post-registration (regional) trials. For example, the spring wheat co-op data that is reported in the Varieties of Cereal and Oilseed Crops for Alberta factsheets includes days to maturity, resistance to lodging, shattering and sprouting, and resistance to five different diseases. It is hard to find a third-party source of information that would have all the relevant material in one package.

“Free access to independent variety performance information helps producers to select varieties that perform well in their commercial fields, and also this data is helping seed growers to choose a cultivar that will meet their customers’ needs,” adds Fedko.

Accurate Data

The RVT program is responsible for generating unbiased post-registration information for varieties of wheat, barley, oat, rye triticale, flax, field pea, chickpea, lentil, dry bean and faba bean.

Good field trials are required to generate reliable data, and several quality control steps are in place to achieve this. Fedko annually reviews test protocols with collaborators to detail the conduct of the trials and the expectations. All of the field trials are also inspected; cooperators receive 35 per cent of the plot payment for seeding, but unless the trial passes a July inspection, no further payment is made.

Crop specific coordinators, individuals who are experts in the crop, review the raw data prior to analysis. After the data are approved, statistical analysis is performed and measures of variability similar to those used in crop registration trials are used to determine the reliability of the trial prior to entry into the database. Finally, the crop specific coordinators review the tables prior to presentation before the committee, where they are discussed and ultimately approved for publication.

“We constantly strive to present the data in the most pertinent and understandable manner. As examples, in recent years we’ve changed the method of yield data presentation, used actual ratings to report disease resistance and added various columns of new information,” notes Fedko. “And finally, producers have asked us to enter a few more cultivars that they may be able to relate to more readily. The entries in the trials changes every year and it is made up of new varieties that producers are likely to see within the next two to three years.”

The inclusion of some older “benchmark” cultivars that are well known to producers started this season and Fedko says that should help producers make better-informed decisions. The selection of the benchmark varieties is based on the most popular varieties from data published in Yield Alberta. It means that wheat, barley and oat trials now have three to four checks instead of one.

Understanding Cereal Variety Data

When comparing varietal performance data, growers should find as much information as they can from various sources.

“The RVT tables done by independent cooperators is really just another set of data to compare the results producers are seeing from company data, variety registration data, crop insurance data or their own field trials,” says Fedko. “Consistency among the different sources of data sets is the key. If a variety is repeatedly coming out in the top, the confidence that it will perform well goes up.”

However, in case there are substantial differences among those different data sets, it doesn’t necessarily mean a grower should stay away from a variety, but rather it should be the signal to do more research. In this case, digging deeper into background of those trials may help. Protocols used, weather conditions, or other growing season stresses may have caused the poorer performance at some locations.

Looking at other factors besides yield is important to get a complete picture. In many cases, the varieties included in the trials are top performing varieties from various programs, so the yield differences may be small. In this case, a variety that has a larger number of station years can increase confidence.

Other factors that may be as important as yield data are maturity, lodging and disease ratings. Growers have many options at their disposal, however, spending a lot of money on good genetics will not compensate for poor agronomic management. Starting with good genetics is a foundation to have a successful crop, but it can’t make up for poor management down the road. It is still important to get adequate plant population established early, sufficient nutrients for an appropriate target yield, and then protect the yield potential from pests and harvest losses.

Funding

Conducting regional variety testing for numerous crops over the large agricultural area of Alberta is a huge undertaking. The RVT program is funded in four ways: industry funds via annual entry fees for lines in the regional trials; Government of Alberta contribution of the RVT coordinator; funding from parties with interest in regional crop performance data for Alberta producers; and in-kind contributions of time/seed/trial coordination/plot data from collaborators who do not receive monetary compensation. There are some differences in funding between the cereal and pulse crops.

According to Fedko, in 2017, the cereal and flax RVT program under ARVAC expects to generate $76,700 through a $1,300 annual testing fee charged for each variety being tested, excluding checks. In addition, a major contribution from the Alberta Wheat Commission along with funding from the Alberta Barley Commission, the Oat Growers, the Alberta Seed Growers and the Alberta Seed Processors (half goes towards ARVAC) helps to defray modest expenses to deliver the program.

“This revenue is used to fund regional variety trials at nine to 11 core sites in Alberta,” notes Fedko. “A few additional unfunded sites are also grown by interested parties, largely for extension purposes, and those data are available to us, provided that all quality controls are met. “

Fedko adds that in recent years, it has been generally accepted that $50 per plot is required to defray the direct costs of growing small plot variety trials. “We are not quite there yet, however. Thanks to the very generous contribution from the Alberta Wheat Commission, we are much closer to the goal than two years ago.”

The pulse crops regional variety-testing program has been sustainable thanks to $100,000 funding through the Growing Forward II program. The funding is a contribution from the industry and Alberta Pulse Growers, and is matched on a 3:1 basis by the federal government.

“Finally, the funds we receive are solely for the benefit of Alberta producers and do not leave the province,” says Fedko. “Moreover, of the $278,000 collected last year for the RVTs, less than $15,000 or five per cent was used for seed setup, shipping, administering the funds and maintaining the crop information system database.”

At the end of the day, industry contributions, including those from Alberta Wheat Commission, Alberta Barley, Alberta Oat, Alberta Seed Growers and Alberta Seed Processors are priceless, contributing to the inherent success of the RVTs.

Taking APG’s Research Pulse

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(Photo courtesy D’Arcy Hilgartner)

Alberta Pulse Growers invest millions in pulse research. Where do those dollars go, and why?

As pulse acres in Alberta continue to rise, so does Alberta Pulse Growers’ (APG) investment in research, with $9 million tied up in more than 40 projects.

The province’s 6,000 pulse growers support the non-profit organization through a levy on pulse sales. The money raised is used to fund many initiatives, including marketing, extension, advocacy and administrative activities.

However, research is the organization’s cornerstone, says Leanne Fischbuch, APG’s executive director.

“Research is a key aspect of everything we do with our organization for our growers,” she says. “We’re focused on doing the right research — the research that will work for us and our industry.”

Research initiatives are aimed at growing genetics, yield and sustainability in pulse production, and crop utilization and health benefits are also focus areas. These five research divisions provide a balance of grower- and consumer-focused research, says Fischbuch, because building demand for pulse products is as vital as improving yields.

D’Arcy Hilgartner

The organization proportionately reinvests in the pulse crops Alberta producers are growing, says D’Arcy Hilgartner, APG’s chair. “We try to allocate based on where our levy dollars are flowing from,” he says. “Because we’re a producer-funded commodity commission, we try to be very reflective of the needs and wants of our producers.”

And as an Alberta pulse producer, Hilgartner has a vested interest in where APG invests its research money.

“It’s my money — it’s producer money,” says Hilgartner. “We’re all producers around that table, so we’re aware we need to be very responsible about how we spend our money. We want to give producers the best bang for their buck, addressing their concerns and their needs,” he says.

Growing Genetics

Many Canadian institutions and organizations are currently carrying out pulse research for APG, including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF), University of Alberta (U of A), University of Toronto, University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC), Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Food Processing Development Centre, Farming Smarter and Western Ag Innovations.

According to Fischbuch, APG consistently funds research on genetic improvement, a top priority for the organization. At present, 11 breeding projects are being funded, worth 25 per cent of the total research budget.

For example, AAFC research scientists Deng-Jin Bing and Parthiba Balasubramanian are working on developing field pea and dry bean varieties, respectively, with improved disease resistance and harvestability as well as increased yields.

“These scientists are continually putting out fantastic genetics that are very Alberta focused. Our industry is seeing the benefits of those varieties. It’s exciting to see that work in commercial production,” says Fischbuch.

In the future, APG wants to see an increase in the number of varieties available to Alberta producers suited to the province’s growing conditions. Thus, the organization allocates generous funds for pre-commercialization research, says Hilgartner.

“That’s where companies tend not to put money in because they don’t see a [return] next year or the year after. If it’s a new variety, it’s ready five to 10 years from now. That’s where we thought we’d look at putting our support,” he says.

Last year, the APG board decided to end its agreement with Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG) whereby Alberta’s Select Status seed growers could access breeder seed through the SPG’s Variety Release Program.

“We were in that agreement for numerous years where we provided some funding that allowed [Select Status] seed growers access to that program. When the program was initiated, there were indirect benefits to APG members via the Select Seed growers, and recent evaluation determined the program was no longer meeting the organization’s objectives,” says Fischbuch.

“When we look at Alberta, we would like to see more pulse varieties targeted for Alberta growers focused on Alberta’s environment. So, testing in the province of Alberta and focusing on selections that would be key for our growers. We’re not the same environment as other parts of Canada,” she says.

Furthermore, Fischbuch says SPG is currently reviewing the way it commercializes its pulse varieties outside of Saskatchewan, and is exploring options for marketing those varieties.

“There will be opportunity to have varieties here from CDC and elsewhere. I think it’s all changing. There are many breeders out there and they’re producing great varieties. We want to see that benefit come to Alberta. And if there are CDC varieties that excel, that’s great — they’ll eventually be here,” she says.

Leanne Fischbuch

Fischbuch also believes the ratification of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV ’91) convention will also spur investment in varietal development.

“With UPOV ’91, I think there’s opportunity to move forward and see more companies bring their genetics here for testing and establishment. Look at the numbers of varieties that have been introduced since the legislation passed. You’re getting a whole bunch of plant breeders protecting their varieties now when they’re bringing them into Canada,” says Fischbuch.

“If the [varieties] are showing good yields, farmers will find them and use them. And we’ll continue with our investments in research because, really, that’s where we’re focusing and trying to make sure that our growers are able to grow their pulses, market their pulses, and really be profitable and sustainable for the industry.”

Growing Yields and Sustainability

Currently, 16 projects utilizing 36 per cent of the research budget is devoted to growing pulse yields in Alberta. And when it comes to boosting yields, work on pea leaf weevil is essential, says Fischbuch. “We’ve seen pea leaf weevil creep across the province from the south, moving northward,” she says.

AAFC researcher Héctor Cárcamo is assessing management strategies, such as cultural practices and insecticide applications, to control pea leaf weevil in field pea and faba bean crops.

Meanwhile, Maya Evenden, a U of A entomologist, has devised an early warning system using semiochemical-baited traps to monitor pea leaf weevil on the Prairies.

Funds have also been allocated for at least three separate studies on Aphanomyces, a soil-borne water mould that poses a serious risk to Alberta pea crops.

Aphanomyces could destroy our pea industry,” says Fischbuch. “This is going to be huge for our producers and we need to get a handle on it.”

AAFC researcher Syama Chatterton estimates Aphanomyces euteiches, which causes pea root rot, is present in up to half of Alberta fields, says Fischbuch. A leading scientist on Aphanomyces research, Chatterton is working on ways to address the issue through APG-funded studies, and further research is projected.

“Our continued work on Aphanomyces is a real priority when it comes to making sure we’re going to be able to have pulses here in the province of Alberta for a long time. The more we can learn about that disease, the better off we’ll be. It’s absolutely critical for us,” says Fischbuch.

Research that increases pulse crops’ long-term sustainability as a viable choice for producers has been allocated seven per cent of APG’s funds. Projects focus on capturing pulses’ rotational benefits, and fertility and water-use management attributes, and can be either producer or consumer focused. For example, an ongoing study is examining the agronomic and economic benefits of including pulses in a Brown soil zone crop rotation.

Utilization and Health

Utilization and health are both consumer-focused categories and are allocated 16 per cent each of APG’s research budget. These research projects raise awareness of pulses’ health benefits, such as lowering blood sugar and LDL cholesterol.

APG is also supporting the Change Cancer Alberta initiative, which studies the effects of increasing pulses in the diets of primary care patients. Fischbuch says growers may not realize how research is affecting pulse awareness and demand.

“One of the big messages we want to spread is pulses are healthy. There’s a variety of things that are different from what a grower might consider impacts him,” says Fischbuch.

Last year, 2016, was International Year of Pulses, and it proved beneficial in raising awareness about pulses’ health and environmental benefits. To celebrate, APG partnered with AAF’s Food Processing Development Centre and industry partners on a project called “The Alberta Pulse,” to create 10 prototypes of food products incorporating peas, beans and faba beans.

From ravioli to chocolate cake and dog treats, the food products were created to showcase the use of pulse ingredients to the processing side of the industry.

“Having these companies experience the use of pulse ingredients where they never thought of using them before was a real opportunity for us to raise awareness that these ingredients are out there now,” says Fischbuch.

Other utilization projects currently on the go include the development of pulse protein-based pet food kibble, a line of pulse-based gluten free ready-meal products and the use of pea flours in food products with improved nutrition and taste, among others. There will always be a market for pulses, says Fischbuch, especially through recent efforts to increase utilization.

And although there are many agronomic reasons for producers to add pulses to their rotations — for example, pulses fix their own nitrogen, make soil healthier by putting nutrients (including nitrogen) back into the ground, help break disease cycles in the field, and give yield boosts to canola and cereals planted after them — it’s the bottom line that counts. Producers will find that pulses pencil out.

“Pulses have been good business for many growers for many years,” says Fischbuch. “It’s a crop for which there is always a market, and it’s one we’re trying to develop more.”

National Alliance

To further increase the pulse market, APG has aligned its research efforts with the national pulse organization, Pulse Canada. “That’s to grow the industry; to add 25 per cent utilization of pulse ingredients by 2025 in areas where you may not have seen them before,” says Fischbuch.

Although the ways in which producers benefit from APG-funded research are many and varied, tangible outcomes are ongoing, says Hilgartner, such as better varieties, agronomic practices and recommendations. Also, he says, market demand for pulses has grown substantially over the last few years.

However, producers demand research that is broad in scope, from highly technical laboratory-based research to field trials where production is carried out under the same conditions growers experience, says Hilgartner.

“We try to spread our research across the board, so that it helps producers throughout the [entire] process. You can develop a product that works well in a sterile environment, but doesn’t work in a commercial setting — to the producer that has no value,” he says.

As demand climbs and producers increase pulse acres, APG is growing as well. Hilgartner says the organization is working hard to meet the needs of its members, and he encourages producers to be part of the commission and part of the process. He’s excited about his role in pulse production and the opportunities available to his fellow Alberta producers.

“I look at pulses, not only in Alberta, but Western Canada, as a great story economically and environmentally, as to what we can produce here and what we can provide, not only to North American markets, but to the world. A lot of that is because of the research and the high-quality products that come out of here,” he says.

Correctly Used Neonics Do Not Adversely Affect Honeybee Colonies, New Research Finds

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The three most widely used neonicotinoid pesticides for flowering crops pose no risk to honeybee colonies when used correctly as seed treatments, according to new studies by University of Guelph researchers.

Amid mounting controversy over use of neonicotinoids (neonics) and declining bee population, a new analysis by U of G scientists of previously unpublished studies and reports commissioned by agri-chemical companies Bayer and Syngenta – as well as published papers from the scientific literature – shows no significant ill effects on honeybee colonies from three common insecticides made by the companies.

The findings are described in five papers published this month by Keith Solomon, a toxicologist and emeritus professor with the School of Environmental Sciences and adjunct professor Gladys Stephenson in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health-B.

The duo analyzed 170 unpublished studies that Syngenta and Bayer had submitted to regulatory agencies. They also included 64 papers from the open, peer-reviewed literature on the topic.

Prof. Keith Solomon

Acknowledging that these three pesticides can kill individual honeybees and may also pose a threat to other pollinators, Solomon said: “At least for honeybees, these products are not a major concern. Use of these neonics under good agricultural practices does not present a risk to honeybees at the level of the colony.”

The U of G scientists were asked by Bayer and Syngenta to assess earlier studies conducted by or for the companies on impacts of pesticide-treated seeds on honeybees.

They conducted weight of evidence assessments, an approach developed specifically for these studies that is intended to gauge the quality of reported data and to compare relevance of results from different studies.

The companies wished to respond to controversy and inconclusive evidence about the potential harm posed to pollinators by neonic pesticides, said Solomon.

All pesticides in Canada must be registered with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

The study involved three pesticides – clothianidin and imidacloprid made by Bayer, and thiamethoxam made by Syngenta – that are used in seed treatments for various field crops.

Solomon said the original papers varied in quality and scientific rigour, but their results generally showed no adverse effects of pesticides on honeybee hives.

“Many studies look at effects of insecticides on individual bees. What regulations try to protect is the colony — the reproductive unit.”

He said other researchers might use their results to improve studies of pesticide exposure in hives.

The U of G researchers stressed the importance of “good agricultural practices,” including ensuring that seeds are coated and planted properly to avoid airborne contamination of bees during field seeding.

Solomon said their results don’t necessarily apply to other insects that also serve as crop pollinators and that have shown population declines. For those pollinators, he said, “There are too few studies at the colony or field level to allow a weight of evidence analysis.”

The U of G researchers said bees and other pollinators are affected by potentially harmful factors, including long-distance movement of colonies for crop pollination as well as mites and viruses, weather, insufficient food and varying beekeeping practices.

Source: University of Guelph