On Your Own

- Jim and Laura-Lee Dyck

Plant breeder Jim Dyck of Oat Advantage and his wife, Laura-Lee, standing in a neighbour's field of their oat variety ORe3542M. Photo: Jim Dyck

After a decade spent in the lab and field, independent plant breeder Jim Dyck is finally seeing the fruits of his labour with his oats in fields across the Prairies.

Jim Dyck’s interest in plant breeding started decades ago at the University of Manitoba. The university student had grown up on an acreage just outside of Winnipeg, Man., and didn’t exactly know what he wanted to study, so he signed up for an agriculture degree.

“There was a plant breeder, her name was Dr. Anna Storgaard, who was teaching plant breeding courses,” Dyck says in a phone interview. It “was sort of inspiring, just the way that plant breeding could shape a crop and provide value for humanity.”

He followed his degree up with a stint working at a research company and then moved on to United Grain Growers (UGG), which later became Agricore United and then Viterra. He worked there as an agronomist and moved to Saskatoon, Sask. During his time with UGG and Agricore United he did some plant breeding work and obtained a master’s degree from the University of Saskatchewan.

“I had the chance over the years to do a little breeding in canola and flax and wheat, barley — just through dabbling with certain people who I was working with,” Dyck explains. “It became a fascination that I didn’t even realize was building.”

In 2008, Dyck realized his heart was with plant breeding and he decided, along with his Laura-Lee and four children — Lauren, Elena, Graeme and Colin — to start their own oat breeding operation called Oat Advantage.

The Family Business

Starting a private plant breeding operation isn’t easy. Profits don’t happen until after crop varieties are released, which takes at least a decade to happen.

For Dyck, he was lucky to have industry support. SeCan was quick to throw their backing behind him and provide funding. Grower groups throughout Western Canada also wrote some cheques, while milling and grain companies such as Richardson International and General Mills, provided some financial backing.

Laura-Lee and Colin Dyck of Oat Advantage seeding oats during the spring of 2020. Photo: Jim Dyck

His family also stepped up to the plate. When Dyck started Oat Advantage, he knew he wanted to keep it a small family operation. His wife and kids all helped to run the plots and assist in plant breeding. He also worked with researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the University of Saskatchewan.

I’ve learned to “continue to be friends and to make friends. To just work together on oats as much as possible even while you’re competing,” Dyck explains. “You can sort of be a friendly competitor.”

Dyck decided to focus on oats as he had enjoyed working with the crop at previous jobs. Globally oat research was on the decline in 2008 and he thought there was still a lot that could be done with the cereal crop. Over the decade, Dyck focused his breeding efforts on grain quality and bringing more value to oats, while also increasing yields.

While Dyck was working away in his fields, oats were starting to make headlines worldwide driving up demand for them. The cereal crop had caught the attention of the health food sector, with oat milk becoming a popular dairy substitute. International coffee chain giant Starbucks even added oat milk to its menu.

Variety Release

Dyck’s first two varieties ORe3541M and ORe3542M hit the market through SeCan in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the 2019-20 crop year. In the first year around 100,000 acres of the two varieties were planted with acreage increasing for the 2020 growing season.

The farmers “like the standability, the earliness and the yield has been surprising considering how early they are,” Todd Hyra, SeCan business development manager Western Canada, says in a phone interview.

Oat trial over winter

An oat trial during early spring at Oat Advantage. The oats went through some tough nights during the spring but have built in genetic cold tolerance. Photo: Jim Dyck

ORe3541M fits best in the eastern Prairies, Manitoba specifically, while ORe3542M is well adapted to all three prairie provinces. Due to the wet and conditions during the fall of 2019, some fields of Dyck’s varieties were left out over the winter in Alberta. The farmers “still got a decent yield and good grain quality,” Dyck says.

Over the winter both varieties were approved for milling by Richardson International and General Mills, which was a huge step for Oat Advantage.

Being an Independent Breeder

Despite having a few oat varieties out in fields and finally having some income coming in, it hasn’t been a walk in the park for Dyck as an independent breeder.

“It’s super risky. I knew from the beginning. I thought that things would be easier. It’s such a long process to get going,” Dyck says.

There aren’t many independent breeders in Canada. SeCan works with a few out of Europe and has been talking with Jodi Souter in Saskatoon who has started her own operation

This could change though if the Variety Use Agreement (VUA) becomes a reality. The seed use payment program is currently in trial stages with a few crops — it sees breeders paid a fee when growers use farm-saved seed.

Farmers have been weary of the VUA and Dyck understands their concerns. When he started his operation in 2008 the VUA wasn’t a reality so Dyck knew the way to earn an income would be to produce a good variety which would make people want to buy certified seed.

However, if the VUA does happen it would help Oat Advantage to do more innovative work faster. Dyck would be able to upgrade his equipment more frequently and use newer technology. He would also be able to extend his growing season by travelling to places like New Zealand during the winter regularly.

“I can also see the resistance by grower groups because it seems like they’re already paying for things,” Dyck explains. “Maybe they would wonder about whether they get anything for the dollars they that put into that. I believe that they would. I believe that we would be able to deliver more value on that.”

The Future

Dyck is excited about the future of Oat Advantage though no matter what happens. He has numerous oat varieties in development and can’t wait to get them in the fields of growers.

Oat Advantage oats

2000 hand planted high protein oat hills in the foreground at Jim Dyck’s Saskatoon research farm. Photo: Jim Dyck

In Alberta, he’s looking at making faster maturing varieties for the northern part of the province and into the territories. He is also looking at hull less varieties for northern areas which aren’t near mills — this would allow people to cook oats without having to dehull them first.

The early maturing varieties aren’t just helpful for northern areas with shorter growing seasons but also as growers are forced to move away from using pre-harvest glyphosate applications. Milling giants Richardson International and General Mills have both said they will not buy oats sprayed with glyphosate making a faster maturing variety a good fit.

He is also working on high value milling oat varieties and forage oat varieties for Alberta. With Alberta’s unique weather challenges, oat varieties in the province need to be hardy, Dyck says.

He has been working on reducing the itchiness of oats by breeding a hairless variety and he is also working on a new oat variety which doesn’t have a crease on it. This will make for a fuller oat making it heavier and take up more space.

A Breed Apart

-

Plant breeder Robert Graf. Photo: Hamis Naeem

For more than three decades, Rob Graf’s dedication to wheat breeding in Canada has led to his contribution asprincipal developer of 12 wheat cultivars and co-developer of 12 other wheat and triticale cultivars. He’s now focusing his considerable abilities on winter wheat.

Last fall, Robert Graf, a wheat breeder at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, seeded his 34thyear of plot trials and nurseries.

Graf has headed up AAFC’s winter wheat breeding program since 1999, but he began his career 12 years earlier. Shortly before completing his PhD in plant breeding and agronomy at the University of Saskatchewan, he was hired by the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, where his focus was primarily on developing Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat varieties. During that time, he developed three varieties, including McKenzie, the first doubled haploid wheat variety registered and released in North America. It remains Canada’s most successful, privately developed CWRS wheat variety to date.

“It’s no longer grown on any appreciable acres, but it was among the top five CWRS varieties for almost 10 years and has been used extensively as a parent,” says Graf. “Having producers and other breeders see value in what we do is what we strive for — it’s part of what makes us tick.”

Today, Graf works exclusively on winter wheat, primarily of the Canada Western Red Winter (CWRW) class. Although many of the desired characteristics are the same as any other wheat class, such as high yield, excellent agronomics, good disease resistance and the appropriate quality profile, winter wheat varieties also need good cold tolerance to allow them to survive the winter, which presents added challenges for breeders.

“Because winter wheat has a vernalization requirement or, in other words, it needs that cold period during its seedling phase so it can become reproductive, we’re not able to use contra-season [warm winter location] nurseries like spring crop breeders do to speed up the breeding process. That means the breeding cycle is longer for a winter cereal or a fall sown crop,” says Graf.

Focus on Quality Characteristics

One of Graf’s main projects, funded by the cluster program of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership — whose funding partners include the Alberta Wheat Commission, Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission, Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers’ Association, Saskatchewan Winter Cereal Development Commission, Winter Cereals Manitoba, and the Western Grains Research Foundation — is to develop field-ready CWRW cultivars for Western Canada. Funding from the Ducks Unlimited Canada Western Winter Wheat Initiative enhances these efforts.

Another project Graf is working on is the development of “premium quality” winter wheat to add more value for producers and processors. “One of the challenges with winter wheat has been marketing,” says Graf. “Historically, we’ve had a couple of quality deficiencies that, if we could correct, would go a long way toward increasing the farm gate price for hard red winter wheat. And by increasing the price, along with the yield advantage that winter wheat already has, I feel it would drive acreage.”

The first characteristic that Graf is trying to improve is protein concentration. “We are working on increasing the protein potential from a genetic standpoint, and we have germplasm that makes us very optimistic that this can be achieved,” says Graf. “We’ve developed several lines that show much better protein concentration along with other desirable traits and are using them as parents for further improvements.”

Graf was recently awarded the 2020 Canadian Plant Breeding and Genetics Award, co-sponsored by the Canadian Seed Trade Association and Germination magazine. Photo: George Clayton.

The second quality characteristic — flour water absorption — has been far more difficult to improve. When flour is milled, the flour absorbs a certain amount of water upon mixing to create dough, but winter wheat generally has lower water absorption than spring wheat, so it produces less dough and therefore fewer loaves of bread; a disadvantage to a baker.

“We’ve been working on this characteristic for over 15 years and finally have some promising lines,” says Graf. “We’re at a point now where we’re crossing high protein lines with those that have improved water absorption to develop varieties that correct both deficiencies. The end result, at some point, may be quality that’s comparable to our premium quality Canada Western Red Spring class.”

If Graf does that it will be something that no one else has tackled, and he already has a line in registration trials that could be a prototype.

Over the past 20 years, Graf and other western Canadian winter wheat breeders have also made a lot of progress incorporating disease resistance into new varieties — characteristics that were rare in winter wheat when he started.

In fact, Graf has a line that was approved for registration in 2019 (W569) that exceeds the requirements for all five priority one wheat diseases; Fusarium head blight, leaf rust, stem rust, stripe rust and common bunt.

“Disease resistance has been a major focus of my program, but I would still say that the resistance package in our Canadian winter wheat varieties is rather shallow. In other words, most of the resistance genes are on their own because we don’t have effective pyramids of a number of genes that would serve as backups. If there’s a race shift for a particular disease it could wipe out the resistance in several varieties, but we’re working very hard on that and making wonderful progress,” says Graf.

Graf has also produced a hard white wheat variety for specialty markets — AAC Icefield — and is working on soft winter wheat for the food processing and ethanol markets.

Changing Landscape

There have been a lot of changes since Graf began his career back in 1987, not the least of which was the introduction of doubled haploid technology in the early 1990s.

“When McKenzie was registered in 1997, it was considered to be ‘biotech wheat,’ but doubled haploid technology is simply regarded as a regular plant breeding process these days, as it should be. There was a lot of excitement at the time and Canadian breeding programs were early to embrace this technology because it speeds up the process dramatically,” says Graf. “Doubled haploidy has made a big difference, particularly in winter wheat.”

So has the development of molecular markers and sequencing of the wheat genome, says Graf.  “We know wheat has over 107,000 genes, and the reference genome identified about four million genetic markers,” he says. “The big challenge now is to associate the traits that we’re interested in with those markers. And along with that, we need an understanding of what the effects and interaction of the various genes are. So, there’s a huge amount of work to be done, but the future is really bright.”

Challenges Ahead

In the future, Graf sees gene editing as a tool that could move the industry forward in many exciting ways, but that doesn’t mean the plant breeder’s job is going to be without its challenges.

“Our ability to very precisely change gene sequences, possibly turning genes on or off, or reengineering defeated disease resistance genes are examples of some of the things being thought about,” he says.

“There are countless possibilities, but plant breeders will still need to incorporate the lines with these changes back into their breeding programs. It also has to be remembered that there are likely to be pleiotropic effects, something that plant breeders deal with all the time. When one thing is changed various other traits are often affected, things you may not expect. A very simple example is as yield is increased, there’s a negative correlation with protein concentration. The plant breeder’s job is to try to shift those correlations as much as possible and expand the boundaries of those relationships.”

Graf also sees challenges in terms of explaining breeding technologies to people who aren’t well informed about science and food production, and determining a new funding model for cereal breeding in Canada.

“Currently, there are value creation discussions going on and I think it’s fair to say producers will be expected to contribute more towards plant breeding,” says Graf. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing since it could enhance the tremendous success of our public breeding efforts; efforts that have been in partnership with various producer groups. At the same time, having worked in private industry, I have first-hand knowledge of the advantages they might bring, and developing a model that encourages private investment while maintaining a strong public presence is important. The question becomes, what is the right public-private balance? How this evolves, and what Canadian cereal breeding looks like in the future, is something we need to get right.”

Climate change is another area where Graf sees challenges for breeders, especially as, with milder winters, the potential exists for new pests to move northwards and diseases to evolve more quickly, but he also sees technology providing a lot of solutions as well.

“Since 2000, we’ve seen shifts in stripe rust races that have higher temperature optima, so they’re much more virulent,” says Graf. “There’s also the well-known threat of Ug99 stem rust races. Those are just a couple of examples that, as plant breeders, we need to be ready for and always be forward looking. With the technologies we’re using now and future technologies such as genomic selection and gene editing, we’ll become more efficient in our breeding efforts, and hopefully bring advancements quicker than ever before.”

To date, Graf is the principal developer of 12 wheat cultivars (nine winter wheats and three spring wheats) as well as co-developer of 12 other wheat and triticale cultivars.

He was recently announced as the recipient of the 2020 Canadian Plant Breeding and Genetics Award, co-sponsored by the Canadian Seed Trade Association and Germinationmagazine.  He received the ASTech Leadership Foundation Award for Innovation in Agricultural Science in 2016, the AAFC Gold Harvest Award for Innovation, Collaboration and Service Excellence, and was co-author of the Canadian Society of Agronomy Best Paper in 2015. Graf has also been awarded Honorary Life Memberships by both the Alberta Seed Growers’ and the Canadian Seed Growers’ Associations.

Triticale Is Holding Its Own Thanks To Alberta Agriculture And Forestry Plant Breeder, Mazen Aljarrah

-

Thirty-four years into breeding wheat and triticale, Mazen Aljarrah, a researcher at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Field Crop Development Centre (FCDC) in Lacombe, Alta., is as excited about the work he’s doing now as he was at the outset.

“I enjoy every moment working in this centre. As a plant breeder, you have a hope and a dream every year that you’re going to get a super variety next year. When you go through the advanced material and you see the babies, you always hope that one day we’ll get one variety that is perfect: that will satisfy all of a farmer’s needs. Will that happen? Maybe not, but every year we’re making progress in a good way that adds value.”

Progress, indeed. Over the last three years, Aljarrah has released three new winter triticale varieties to the market. The real excitement — and, for the past five years, exclusive emphasis — of his breeding program today, however, is in the spring varieties.

Spring Triticale

Since 2018, Aljarrah has released four new spring triticale varieties. More are coming soon. Much more important than numbers, however, is the quality of the new lines.

“When I meet with farmers and livestock producers, I say: don’t ever judge triticale by old triticale varieties,” he says. “Try the new ones and then let me know. It’s not the same crop as it used to be.”

Given Alberta’s strong livestock sector, Aljarrah’s priority with triticale is to continuously improve the crop’s forage traits. In addition to dry matter and forage yield, Aljarrah is focusing on a host of forage attributes including digestibility, lodging resistance, reduced awn and disease resistance.

“I’m not worried about productivity in triticale. Our new varieties produce at least 15 per cent higher than barley. They’re pretty similar to oats, which used to be No. 1 for productivity. My challenge is to enhance the other features to make triticale a top forage crop,” he says.

Currently, triticale ranks between barley and oats for digestibility. Aljarrah hopes to bring triticale’s digestibility closer to that of top-ranking barley. Already, his newest varieties show a significant jump in the right direction. In order to improve digestibility further, Aljarrah is reshaping the crop, a move that also tackles triticale’s tendency to lodge.

“Usually the reason triticale has lower digestibility than barley is because it has a high quantity of lignin, mainly in the stem. What I’m doing is reshaping triticale to have shorter stems but bigger and more fertile heads. The heads of the new varieties contribute 45 per cent of biomass during cutting compared to maybe only 30 per cent. The change maintains good biomass yield but improves the forage quality and achieves much better lodging resistance.”

Meanwhile, he is also striving to improve the smoothness of triticale’s traditionally rough awns and increase both ergot and fusarium head blight (FHB) resistance.

“All the lines we registered this year and last year have very low ergot infection compared to checks. Many farmers believe all triticale gets ergot, but that is not the case.”

While FHB is not province-wide, infection levels are on the rise. There’s little question that FHB will be an increasing concern in Alberta in the future.

“FHB is something we really have to pay attention to,” says Aljarrah. “Triticale is sensitive to FHB so we are trying to increase FHB resistance level in our genotypes. Most of the lines we’ve developed have an MS [moderate susceptible] rating, which is acceptable. However, the last variety we developed — one called T267 — may be the very first line of triticale available with moderate FHB resistance.”

Unfortunately, he says, breeding for FHB resistance is very difficult because he does not have FHB resistant resources in his triticale germplasm. Compounding that issue is the fact he can’t easily borrow outside germplasm as he might with a crop like wheat because few centres breed triticale anywhere in the world, and most of those that do are private sector. In fact, the FCDC in Lacombe is currently the only research station with a spring triticale breeding program anywhere in Canada.

He’s working to solve the challenge of germplasm development through creative means.

“Triticale is crossable with wheat, and then I can cross back or top cross to triticale. It’s a long process but it can work to bring more good traits from wheat to triticale,” he says.

One such trait he’s hoping to breed in from wheat is enhanced ergot resistance, given that wheat is much less susceptible to ergot than triticale. He also hopes to increase grain quality (specifically, reduce grain shrivelling) by transferring wheat genetics.

Several years ago, Aljarrah also started making crosses between winter and spring triticale, given that they have entirely different genetic backgrounds. Already, he has some populations at the yield trial stage.

Farmers and seed companies are taking notice of Aljarrah’s successes. Seed companies that never before opted for triticale are starting to choose some of Aljarrah’s lines, both winter and spring.

“There is a big change in the interest level and more is coming. During the International Triticale Symposium in Lethbridge last July, we met with U.S. producers and buyers who showed huge interest in our triticale.”

Currently, the market is exclusively oriented towards forage and green feeding. Aljarrah believes huge potential lies ahead in another direction: biofuel.

“The complaint is there’s not enough production of triticale for grain. They use wheat for ethanol production right now, but triticale is much more efficient than wheat. There is a huge market coming up for triticale for biofuel; we’re just not there yet. I’d say maybe five years from now.”

He anticipates bringing multiple new triticale lines to market next year, with varying usage fits.

“Our plan is to put in the market different genotypes and phenotypes that fit different markets. Most of our lines are dual purpose, so they go well for grain or forage production,” he says.

A real challenge for Aljarrah’s program is maintaining funding. Because triticale remains a minor crop in Western Canada, and likely also because it is primarily a forage crop, funding agencies show little interest.

“My hope is that maybe there is an opportunity for groups like Alberta Beef Producers to continue helping provide funding to enhance barley and triticale for forage use, like they have done in the past.”

Spring Wheat

Aljarrah’s spring wheat program is only four years old but holds exciting promise.

“For many years, I collected wheat because it helped me enhance triticale. Later, we found out that our germplasm for spring wheat was very good, so the decision was made to also focus on spring wheat,” he says.

So far, he has three lines in cooperative trials: a Canadian Prairie Spring (CPS), a Canadian Northern Hard Red (CNHR), plus a very high-yielding special purpose wheat that he hopes to release in February 2020.

Unlike triticale, many researchers representing both public research programs and private companies are actively involved in spring wheat research. Aljarrah is very pleased that much of his work on spring wheat is conducted in collaboration with colleagues from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and companies like Syngenta and Limagrain Cereals Research Canada.

“We are swapping trials because having more locations in Western Canada is very critical to success. And, we are working with private companies to evaluate our germplasm for quality,” he says. “The main challenge in our wheat breeding program is finding a place I can evaluate a lot of material for FHB. So far, we don’t have that in Alberta, but Syngenta has a site in Rosebank. That is an example of why collaboration is so important.”

In addition to screening for FHB, Aljarrah’s main priority in CPS is milling quality.

“We have a long history of breeding both winter and spring triticale, so I’m confident we can achieve excellent improvements in wheat too. We have approached a good level for germplasm, so from now on we will have great varieties coming from our program.”

While Aljarrah’s entire career to date has focused on wheat and triticale, his work hasn’t always been based in Canada. Aljarrah was born and raised in Syria and spent the first 22 years (1985-2007) of his career based primarily out of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) based in Aleppo, Syria. His earliest research priorities included screening durum wheat for drought resistance and multiple disease resistances (stripe, stem and leaf rust, among others). Over the last 12 years of his career in Syria, he shifted primarily from durum to winter wheat (as well as some work with triticale), furthering his skills with collaborative projects in Turkey and with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

Unlike the many Syrians who have been forced to leave their country because of war, Aljarrah immigrated to Canada in 2008 entirely by choice.

“Back then, Syria was great on the political side. There were no problems and no war. I didn’t need to leave. But during my whole time with ICARDA, it was always one of my dreams to work on wheat breeding in Canada. I always had a huge poster in my office in Aleppo of the wheat fields on the Canadian Prairies: that’s where I wanted to be.”

In 2008, Aljarrah, together with wife, Zuka, and two sons, left Syria for Canada with great hopes of finally fulfilling his dream.

“I still remember the interview I had at the Canadian embassy. They asked me what province I’d like to choose and I was allowed to pick two. I said, ‘Alberta and Saskatchewan.’ They asked me why I’d pick those two [because] B.C. is warmer. I said, ‘I don’t mind! Over there is the wheat!’”

Eleven years later, he’s still certain he made the right choice.

Wheat Breeder Continues Making Inroads

-

Not all wheat varieties are created equal. And no one knows that better than Harpinder Singh Randhawa.

The spring wheat and triticale breeder who works at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, has developed no less than eight high-yielding spring wheat cultivars and co-developed four high-yielding triticale cultivars for general production in Western Canada.

Randhawa’s passion for wheat breeding developed during his childhood on the family farm in Punjab, India. He attended Punjab Agricultural University, obtaining his BSc. Agriculture (Honours) in 1990 and his M.Sc. with a specialization in plant breeding in 1993. In 1994, he was appointed as assistant rice breeder at Punjab Agricultural University where he was part of a team whose objective was to develop high-yielding cultivars of rice. But his heart was set on wheat.

“I came to Canada in 1996 and graduated with my PhD from the University of Saskatchewan in 2002,” he says. Following a short working stint at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Randhawa took a position as post-doctoral fellow at Washington State University at Pullman, focusing his research on developing new wheat genomics tools, novel strategies for rapid introgression of traits using marker-assisted backcrossing, genetic and physical mapping of agronomically important traits in wheat and eventually developing improved wheat cultivars.

“Simply, I worked there for four and a half years developing breeding tools and doing genetic mapping,” he says. “I also set up a breeding program for incorporation of stripe rust and Clearfield herbicide resistance for the Pacific Northwest using marker-assisted breeding.”

Since 2007, Randhawa has been working as a spring wheat and triticale breeder with AAFC at Lethbridge. His prime focus of research is developing spring wheat cultivars that have better agronomic performance, excellent end-use quality, and resistance to various biotic and abiotic stresses in Western Canada.

His other research interests include the identification of new sources of disease resistance in wheat, genetic mapping, double haploid production and new breeding tools. He has published more than 60 research articles in international journals, he supervises many undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and continues to attend national and international conferences. In 2016, Randhawa received AAFC’s Gold Harvest Award for innovation, collaboration and service excellence.

Randhawa says his breeding program today focuses on two minor classes: Soft White Spring (SWS) and Canada Prairie Spring (CPS) wheats. “In soft white, our focus is developing new varieties with higher yield and improved resistance to various diseases,” he notes. “We’ve developed AAC Chiffon, AAC Indus and AAC Paramount. We also have this new one in the Special Purpose class, the highest-yielding variety in Western Canada — AAC Awesome. It’s a benchmark in pushing yield to the next level.”

With the closure of AAFC’s Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg in 2014, Randhawa’s plant breeding workload increased. To that end, he stresses that the most important highlight in CPS breeding today and going forward is the development of the unique P4 partnership involving Alberta Wheat Commission, Canterra Seeds and AAFC. This program recently yielded its first commercial wheat variety: AAC Crossfield, a Canada Prairie Spring Red (CPSR) wheat with a short, strong straw and high yield potential.

This first-of-its-kind partnership, totalling $3.4 million over five years, is aimed at combining the strengths of producers, along with the public and private sectors, to create improved CPSR wheat varieties for farmers. Breeding for this partnership is being led by Randhawa.

“We’ve entered into a new era for developing and collaborating with industry as a public, private and producer partnership,” he notes. “AAC Crossfield will be in farmer’s fields this year and another one we just registered is AAC Castle; and there’s a new one in the pipeline we’re very excited about.”

Plant breeding isn’t without its challenges, and according to Randhawa, one of the largest he sees is production challenges. “We face different stresses, such as Fusarium head blight for example. It’s moving big time. And although the last two years were okay, we know we’ll see more of this disease.”

Randhawa says one of the challenges associated with breeding for Fusarium head blight resistance is lack of a disease screening nursery in Alberta and limited access to nurseries in Manitoba. “If you can start screening early on, then you have a higher chance of selecting good material and discarding the ‘junk.’ But there are only so many breeding lines that can be screened in the nursery — and that’s my number one challenge.”

Another challenge, he notes, is free access to germplasm. “We are all in the public sector, and we’d like to have a reciprocal transfer of material,” he says. “Plant breeding is all based on diversity — if there’s no diversity and no germplasm, or if I can only use my own germplasm, then I’m going to have a bottleneck, I’m going to stagnate in my gene pool. We need to bring in new genetics and new traits to keep building diversity.”

A third challenge, says Randhawa, is within the minor classes of wheat, such as SWS and CPS. “Whether it’s winter wheat or CPS or soft wheat, we have maybe one million acres for each, more or less. Big classes such as CWRS (Canada Western Red Spring) or durum, they get a lot more attention. This translates over to more marketing attention as well, and that’s hurting the minor classes.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Cereals Canada, Alberta Wheat Commission and Canadian International Grains Institute certainly are doing their part to find consistent markets for the minor classes of wheat. And for his part, Randhawa continues pushing ahead to develop better cultivars for western Canadian growers. He believes new and improved technologies will help in that regard, but having “boots on the ground” on a day-by-day basis is still highly important in the plant breeding field.

“New technologies certainly offer some advantages, such as grains in efficiencies, new genomics tools and artificial intelligence,” he says. “Some of those things will tweak and change and help us, but it won’t happen overnight. There are many things we have to do the hard way, there’s no easy way or shortcut.

“Plant breeding is an interaction with everything — the growing environment, the diseases, the climate, the drought, rain, fertilizer. You can predict things with your computer models, but you can’t predict everything, and you can miss something you never thought of.

“We have to face these challenges and tackle them one at a time, to understand how it works. There is no magic bullet in plant breeding.”

Ramping Up Variety Development

-

NRC research officers Polowick (left) and Rajagopalan (right) are investigating the effects of growing wheat plants under accelerated growth conditions. (Photo: National Research Council of Canada)

One of the most time-consuming parts of the crop breeding process is the time needed to grow successive generations of plants. What if we could really speed that up?

That’s the goal of a project at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). The accelerated growth methods used in this project could potentially trim several years off the breeding process, providing a big boost to the development of improved crop varieties.

“The project’s overall aim is to speed up plant growth so breeders can achieve multiple generations of the crop in a very short time,” explains Dr. Kishore Rajagopalan with the NRC in Saskatoon, who is leading the project. “That will help greatly with plant breeding efforts because plants take quite some time to grow and you need to go through several generations as part of a breeding program.”

For instance, imagine the challenge for a breeder who is trying to address an urgent threat, like a very virulent new strain of a major pathogen. “Sometimes it can take 10 to 13 years to get new varieties out into the marketplace. Pathogens can evolve quickly and spread around the world. They don’t sit around and wait for the breeders to catch up with them. So the faster that the breeders can introduce new forms of disease resistance into a crop, the better,” notes Dr. Patricia Polowick, another NRC researcher involved in accelerated growth studies.

“Accelerated breeding is faster than traditional crop breeding. So if farmers are faced with new threats whether from disease or other means, improved varieties will get to the farmers much faster and they won’t have as much crop loss.”

Acceleration Options

In his project, Rajagopalan’s team is applying multiple methods to speed up wheat growth and looking for the best combination of these methods that will take the plants from seed to flowering and maturity in the shortest time.

One intriguing method involves growing plants under constant light. “The use of continuous light for accelerating crop growth was adopted initially by a group of Australian researchers in collaboration with others around the world. They were inspired by experiments conducted by NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] in the 1980s and 1990s looking at growing plants in controlled environmental conditions including constant light,” Rajagopalan says.

The NASA scientists were experimenting with the use of plants to help maintain human life in space. “In these experiments, they observed a linear effect of light on photosynthetic rate and production of plant biomass. In simple terms, photosynthesis is the process by which a plant converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into storable sugars using energy that comes from sunlight, and in the process it emits oxygen back into the atmosphere. [The scientists observed that] if you increase the supply of light to the plant, then it continues to perform photosynthesis and continues to grow more and faster and produce more biomass,” he notes.

“In addition, in certain plants, especially in cereal crops like wheat and barley, applying continuous light also seems to increase the plant’s development rate. So the plant goes from seed to flowering faster, and you get to the next generation of plants faster. This is simply because constant light could act as a stress factor. When you apply stress to a plant, the plant responds by producing flowers and seeds, and completing its lifecycle as early as possible before it dies or desiccates.”

Rajagopalan notes other environmental stress factors can also accelerate plant development in a similar way. So, along with constant light, the project is testing factors like moisture stress, nutrient availability stress and stress from smaller pot sizes.

The research team is also using a propagation method called embryo rescue to go more quickly from one generation to the next. “We harvest seeds before they are fully mature and dried, and harvest the embryos from these grains, put the embryos on nutrient media plates and get seedlings from them. That can save us a few weeks, instead of waiting for the grains to mature and dry,” Rajagopalan explains.

Speed Breeding, Canadian Style

The project’s four objectives mainly relate to determining optimal procedures for accelerating growth of Canadian wheats, seeing how many generations they can get per year, and increasing understanding of the effects of these accelerated growth conditions on plants.

“The first objective is to evaluate the rust and Fusarium head blight resistance of different Canadian wheat varieties when grown under normal conditions compared with the accelerated growth conditions,” says Rajagopalan. “We want to understand how important traits like disease resistance are affected by these accelerated growth conditions so that we can use these conditions for breeding for those traits.”

They are focusing on Fusarium head blight and rust because of the relevance of these diseases to Canadian wheat production. “We looked at Fusarium head blight because it’s an increasing problem in the wheat-growing regions in Western Canada. The statistics from the last 10 years show the incidence of Fusarium head blight in wheat in Canada has increased almost every year; 2016 was a particularly bad year. Not only does this disease reduce yields but it can also produce toxins, like deoxynivalenol (DON), which can downgrade grain quality and affect the marketability of the grain. So it’s a pretty devastating disease economically,” he says.

“That’s why many researchers here at the NRC and in other organizations are working to find new sources of resistance against Fusarium head blight in wheat. And we want to be able to quickly deploy those novel traits into varieties that are being created, so those varieties can respond to this increasing threat in Canadian farming. By using accelerated breeding, we believe we can bring these traits to the market earlier than is currently possible.”

Like Fusarium head blight, rust is a major disease concern in Prairie wheat crops, and many Canadian researchers are working on rust resistance. Rajagopalan’s project is targeting leaf rust, a common disease in wheat. Under conditions that favour this disease, susceptible wheat varieties can suffer very serious yield losses. Over the years, several leaf rust resistance genes have been introduced into Canadian wheat cultivars and then the pathogen has evolved to defeat that resistance.

“Rapid deployment of new rust resistance genes is essential for fighting this pathogen. And again, speed breeding would be the way to address that.”

The project’s second objective is to see if responses to the accelerated growth methods vary among different wheat varieties. This extensive work involves testing multiple Canadian varieties of bread wheat and durum wheat and determining which combination of acceleration methods is best for each cultivar. “We want to see if we can do any tailoring of conditions for particular varieties,” notes Rajagopalan.

The third objective is to rapidly generate a recombinant inbred line population under accelerated growth conditions. Such lines are very useful for mapping traits in a plant’s genome. The lines generated in Rajagopalan’s project will be used in other projects to characterize resistance genes for rust diseases in wheat.

“And the fourth objective is to evaluate long-term changes induced when plants are grown for multiple generations under accelerated growth conditions,” says Rajagopalan. “We want to see if any long-lasting effects are happening in the plants compared to plants grown under normal conditions.”

Polowick adds, “One of the reasons we want to look at the long-term effects is because we are putting the plants under a lot of stress.” Breeders will want to be sure plants grown under induced stresses to accelerate their growth will respond to things like diseases and insect pests in the same way when they are grown under normal conditions.

Boosting a Breeding Revolution

This two-year project started in April 2017, and Rajagopalan’s team has already completed two of the objectives. “We have completed the testing of the effects of Fusariumand rust resistance in different varieties under normal and accelerated growth conditions. And we have completed the very large-scale study to understand the effects of accelerated growth conditions on various wheat varieties. So we have a really good understanding of what conditions work best for the multiple varieties of durum and bread wheat that we have tested.” The researchers are currently working on the other two objectives.

The effects of the accelerated growth conditions are very impressive so far.

“Right now, we are getting about five to six generations of wheat within a year using these conditions. For plants grown under normal conditions [in a greenhouse], you will get around two to three generations per year. So you can reduce the generation time of the plant by half by adopting these conditions,” says Rajagopalan.

There is already interest in applying speed breeding beyond Rajagopalan’s project. “I’m running a parallel study with a private breeding company using the same accelerated breeding ideas with some of their wheat lines,” Polowick explains. “This concept has been heavily adopted by the plant breeding industry in places like Australia, and we’re hoping that some of our work here will make it more available to the Canadian breeders so Canadian farmers can benefit from our progress.”

Along with the benefit of bringing new varieties to the market sooner, Polowick points to a further advantage. “Some of the other projects within the NRC [and other agencies] use the modern ‘omics’ such as genomics and proteomics, and these technologies have enabled great progress in the identification of novel plant traits whether it is to fight diseases or to mitigate the effects of environmental stresses. So it’s not accelerated growth conditions in isolation; it’s accelerated growth in combination with a lot of the progress being made in other projects that will provide the most benefit to the farmers.”

Alberta Wheat Commission research manager Lauren Comin sees value in this type of research. “Decreasing the time it takes for a variety to be developed is very important for producers. Producers need to be able to be nimble when it comes to choosing a variety. For example, resistance to abiotic and biotic stress plays an important role in selection. We are seeing pests adapt over time and currently employed resistance genes are being defeated. At the same time, we are seeing remarkable advancements in pre-breeding and discoveries of new sources of resistance. Shorter variety development times mean that new genes can be deployed and be in a farmer’s field without too much of a lag. Our scientists can respond to changes more quickly, which allows farmers to adapt faster as well.”

Along with the potential for large, rapid steps forward in Canadian wheat varietal improvement, other crops could also benefit from the powerful combination of accelerated breeding and valuable new traits. Australian research shows speed breeding can also work in such crops as barley, chickpea, pea and canola, with the number of possible generations per year depending on the crop type.

“We would love to see wider adoption of these accelerated breeding methods that we are working on in Canadian wheat breeding programs and to also make progress in other crops where this approach is applicable,” Rajagopalan says.

His project is funded by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, the Canada-Saskatchewan Growing Forward 2 program, and the National Research Council of Canada.

 

Ramping up Variety Development

-

NRC research officers Polowick (left) and Rajagopalan (right) are investigating the effects of growing wheat plants under accelerated growth conditions. (Photo courtesy National Research Council of Canada)

One of the most time-consuming parts of the crop breeding process is the time needed to grow successive generations of plants. What if we could really speed that up?

That’s the goal of a project at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). The accelerated growth methods used in this project could potentially trim several years off the breeding process, providing a big boost to the development of improved crop varieties.

“The project’s overall aim is to speed up plant growth so breeders can achieve multiple generations of the crop in a very short time,” explains Dr. Kishore Rajagopalan with the NRC in Saskatoon, who is leading the project. “That will help greatly with plant breeding efforts because plants take quite some time to grow and you need to go through several generations as part of a breeding program.”

For instance, imagine the challenge for a breeder who is trying to address an urgent threat, like a very virulent new strain of a major pathogen. “Sometimes it can take 10 to 13 years to get new varieties out into the marketplace. Pathogens can evolve quickly and spread around the world. They don’t sit around and wait for the breeders to catch up with them. So the faster that the breeders can introduce new forms of disease resistance into a crop, the better,” notes Dr. Patricia Polowick, another NRC researcher involved in accelerated growth studies.

“Accelerated breeding is faster than traditional crop breeding. So if farmers are faced with new threats whether from disease or other means, improved varieties will get to the farmers much faster and they won’t have as much crop loss.”

Acceleration Options

In his project, Rajagopalan’s team is applying multiple methods to speed up wheat growth and looking for the best combination of these methods that will take the plants from seed to flowering and maturity in the shortest time.

One intriguing method involves growing plants under constant light. “The use of continuous light for accelerating crop growth was adopted initially by a group of Australian researchers in collaboration with others around the world. They were inspired by experiments conducted by NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] in the 1980s and 1990s looking at growing plants in controlled environmental conditions including constant light,” Rajagopalan says.

The NASA scientists were experimenting with the use of plants to help maintain human life in space. “In these experiments, they observed a linear effect of light on photosynthetic rate and production of plant biomass. In simple terms, photosynthesis is the process by which a plant converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into storable sugars using energy that comes from sunlight, and in the process it emits oxygen back into the atmosphere. [The scientists observed that] if you increase the supply of light to the plant, then it continues to perform photosynthesis and continues to grow more and faster and produce more biomass,” he notes.

“In addition, in certain plants, especially in cereal crops like wheat and barley, applying continuous light also seems to increase the plant’s development rate. So the plant goes from seed to flowering faster, and you get to the next generation of plants faster. This is simply because constant light could act as a stress factor. When you apply stress to a plant, the plant responds by producing flowers and seeds, and completing its lifecycle as early as possible before it dies or desiccates.”

Rajagopalan notes other environmental stress factors can also accelerate plant development in a similar way. So, along with constant light, the project is testing factors like moisture stress, nutrient availability stress and stress from smaller pot sizes.

The research team is also using a propagation method called embryo rescue to go more quickly from one generation to the next. “We harvest seeds before they are fully mature and dried, and harvest the embryos from these grains, put the embryos on nutrient media plates and get seedlings from them. That can save us a few weeks, instead of waiting for the grains to mature and dry,” Rajagopalan explains.

Speed Breeding, Canadian Style

The project’s four objectives mainly relate to determining optimal procedures for accelerating growth of Canadian wheats, seeing how many generations they can get per year, and increasing understanding of the effects of these accelerated growth conditions on plants.

“The first objective is to evaluate the rust and Fusarium head blight resistance of different Canadian wheat varieties when grown under normal conditions compared with the accelerated growth conditions,” says Rajagopalan. “We want to understand how important traits like disease resistance are affected by these accelerated growth conditions so that we can use these conditions for breeding for those traits.”

They are focusing on Fusarium head blight and rust because of the relevance of these diseases to Canadian wheat production. “We looked at Fusarium head blight because it’s an increasing problem in the wheat-growing regions in Western Canada. The statistics from the last 10 years show the incidence of Fusarium head blight in wheat in Canada has increased almost every year; 2016 was a particularly bad year. Not only does this disease reduce yields but it can also produce toxins, like deoxynivalenol (DON), which can downgrade grain quality and affect the marketability of the grain. So it’s a pretty devastating disease economically,” he says.

“That’s why many researchers here at the NRC and in other organizations are working to find new sources of resistance against Fusarium head blight in wheat. And we want to be able to quickly deploy those novel traits into varieties that are being created, so those varieties can respond to this increasing threat in Canadian farming. By using accelerated breeding, we believe we can bring these traits to the market earlier than is currently possible.”

Like Fusarium head blight, rust is a major disease concern in Prairie wheat crops, and many Canadian researchers are working on rust resistance. Rajagopalan’s project is targeting leaf rust, a common disease in wheat. Under conditions that favour this disease, susceptible wheat varieties can suffer very serious yield losses. Over the years, several leaf rust resistance genes have been introduced into Canadian wheat cultivars and then the pathogen has evolved to defeat that resistance.

“Rapid deployment of new rust resistance genes is essential for fighting this pathogen. And again, speed breeding would be the way to address that.”

The project’s second objective is to see if responses to the accelerated growth methods vary among different wheat varieties. This extensive work involves testing multiple Canadian varieties of bread wheat and durum wheat and determining which combination of acceleration methods is best for each cultivar. “We want to see if we can do any tailoring of conditions for particular varieties,” notes Rajagopalan.

The third objective is to rapidly generate a recombinant inbred line population under accelerated growth conditions. Such lines are very useful for mapping traits in a plant’s genome. The lines generated in Rajagopalan’s project will be used in other projects to characterize resistance genes for rust diseases in wheat.

“And the fourth objective is to evaluate long-term changes induced when plants are grown for multiple generations under accelerated growth conditions,” says Rajagopalan. “We want to see if any long-lasting effects are happening in the plants compared to plants grown under normal conditions.”

Polowick adds, “One of the reasons we want to look at the long-term effects is because we are putting the plants under a lot of stress.” Breeders will want to be sure plants grown under induced stresses to accelerate their growth will respond to things like diseases and insect pests in the same way when they are grown under normal conditions.

Boosting a Breeding Revolution

This two-year project started in April 2017, and Rajagopalan’s team has already completed two of the objectives. “We have completed the testing of the effects of Fusarium and rust resistance in different varieties under normal and accelerated growth conditions. And we have completed the very large-scale study to understand the effects of accelerated growth conditions on various wheat varieties. So we have a really good understanding of what conditions work best for the multiple varieties of durum and bread wheat that we have tested.” The researchers are currently working on the other two objectives.

The effects of the accelerated growth conditions are very impressive so far.

“Right now, we are getting about five to six generations of wheat within a year using these conditions. For plants grown under normal conditions [in a greenhouse], you will get around two to three generations per year. So you can reduce the generation time of the plant by half by adopting these conditions,” says Rajagopalan.

There is already interest in applying speed breeding beyond Rajagopalan’s project. “I’m running a parallel study with a private breeding company using the same accelerated breeding ideas with some of their wheat lines,” Polowick explains. “This concept has been heavily adopted by the plant breeding industry in places like Australia, and we’re hoping that some of our work here will make it more available to the Canadian breeders so Canadian farmers can benefit from our progress.”

Along with the benefit of bringing new varieties to the market sooner, Polowick points to a further advantage. “Some of the other projects within the NRC [and other agencies] use the modern ‘omics’ such as genomics and proteomics, and these technologies have enabled great progress in the identification of novel plant traits whether it is to fight diseases or to mitigate the effects of environmental stresses. So it’s not accelerated growth conditions in isolation; it’s accelerated growth in combination with a lot of the progress being made in other projects that will provide the most benefit to the farmers.”

Alberta Wheat Commission research manager Lauren Comin sees value in this type of research. “Decreasing the time it takes for a variety to be developed is very important for producers. Producers need to be able to be nimble when it comes to choosing a variety. For example, resistance to abiotic and biotic stress plays an important role in selection. We are seeing pests adapt over time and currently employed resistance genes are being defeated. At the same time, we are seeing remarkable advancements in pre-breeding and discoveries of new sources of resistance. Shorter variety development times mean that new genes can be deployed and be in a farmer’s field without too much of a lag. Our scientists can respond to changes more quickly, which allows farmers to adapt faster as well.”

Along with the potential for large, rapid steps forward in Canadian wheat varietal improvement, other crops could also benefit from the powerful combination of accelerated breeding and valuable new traits. Australian research shows speed breeding can also work in such crops as barley, chickpea, pea and canola, with the number of possible generations per year depending on the crop type.

“We would love to see wider adoption of these accelerated breeding methods that we are working on in Canadian wheat breeding programs and to also make progress in other crops where this approach is applicable,” Rajagopalan says.

His project is funded by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, the Canada-Saskatchewan Growing Forward 2 program, and the National Research Council of Canada.

What Makes Cereal Crops More Stress-Tolerant?

-

Whether barley, wheat, maize or rice: The grass family includes all the major cereals. They are vital for feeding the world’s population. Farmers produce 80 per cent of all plant-based foods from grass crops. This success is due in part to the plants’ ability to adjust more quickly to dry conditions and sustain lack of water better than other plants.

But why are grasses more tolerant to water scarcity? Can other food crops be bred for this property, too, to assure or boost agricultural yields in the future? This could be important in the face of a growing world population and climate change that will entail more periods of dry and hot weather.

The plant researchers Professor Rainer Hedrich, Professor Dietmar Geiger and Dr. Peter Ache from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU) in Bavaria, Germany, are looking into these questions. They studied brewing barley to determine why grasses are more stress-tolerant and are therefore “better” crop plants than potatoes and the likes.

Two Amino Acids Make the Difference

The scientists discovered that this difference can be attributed to the protein SLAC1 of the guard cells. Just two amino acids, the building blocks that make up proteins, are responsible for the plant’s drought tolerance. “We now want to find out whether this small difference can be harnessed to make potatoes, tomatoes or rapeseed more tolerant to stress as well,” says Rainer Hedrich.

The new insights have been published in the prestigious journal Current Biology where Hedrich, Geiger and Ache describe how they pinpointed the tiny difference between grasses and other plants.

Ion Transport is a Key Process

The JMU researchers began scrutinizing microscopically small leaf pores called stomata. These openings admit carbon dioxide for photosynthesis into the plant. But they also serve as outlets for water. To prevent losing too much water through evaporation, land plants have learned during evolution to actively open and close their stomata using special guard cells. Membrane proteins such as SLAC1 play a key role in this regulatory process: acting like channels, they guide ions into and out of the cells.

Hedrich is convinced that a basic understanding of the molecular goings-on during ion transport through the plasma membrane of the guard cells is the key to improving the drought tolerance and yields of agricultural crop plants.

Ion Shuttles Make Leaf Pores More Efficient

The stomata of grasses have a special feature: The pore is bordered by two pairs of cells where other plants only have a single cell pair. Grass cereals boast two dumbbell-shaped guard cells that form and regulate the pore. Additionally, they are flanked by two subsidiary cells.

The JMU researchers have demonstrated that the subsidiary cells absorb and store the potassium and chloride from the guard cells when the pore closes. When the stoma opens, they pass the ions back to the guard cells. “Our cereals use the subsidiary cells as a dynamic reservoir for osmotically active ions. This ion shuttle service between guard cell and subsidiary cell allows the plant to regulate the pores particularly efficiently and quickly,” Dietmar Geiger explains.

Two Measuring Systems for More Drought Resistance

There is a second mechanism that makes grasses more tolerant to dry conditions. When water is scarce, plants produce the stress hormone ABA (abscisic acid). Inside the guard cells, it activates the ion channels of the SLAC1 family, thereby initiating the closing of the stomata to prevent the plant from withering within a matter of minutes.

“Interestingly, we found that nitrate must be present in brewing barley and other grass cereals in addition to ABA to enable the pore to close,” Peter Ache says. The nitrate concentration allows the barley to measure the shape the photosynthesis is in. If it works smoothly, nitrate levels are low.

Barley hence relies on two measuring systems: It uses ABA to register water availability and nitrate to assess photosynthesis performance. “By combining the two, the barley is better able than other plants to negotiate between the extremes of ‘dying of hunger’ and ‘dying of thirst’ when facing water scarcity,” Rainer Hedrich explains

Testing the Nitrate Sensor in Other Plants

Which mechanism is responsible for the difference in stoma regulation at the molecular level? To answer this, the researchers analyzed SLAC1 channels of various herbaceous plants compared to grasses. This allowed them to identify the “nitrate sensor” of the grasses: It is comprised of a motif of two amino acids which first occurred in moss during evolution and was subsequently further optimized to give the guard cells their unique properties.

In a next step, the team of researchers wants to establish whether herbaceous agricultural crops also benefit from having a nitrate sensor. To achieve this, the scientists want to fit Arabidopsis plants that lack the SLAC1 channel with the SLAC1 channel of barley. “If this step increases their stress tolerance, we can consider breeding optimized potatoes, tomatoes or rapeseed,” Hedrich says.

On the Way to Nitrogen-Fixing Cereals

-

Cereal crops that fix their own nitrogen? Achieving this dream could result in major benefits for agriculture and the environment.

Scientists around the world are pursuing this goal, including a group in Alberta. The Lethbridge-based researchers have already made impressive advances towards developing nitrogen-fixing triticale plants as a first step to creating other nitrogen-fixing cereals.

“The idea of nitrogen-fixing cereals is not new. The discovery in the late 1880s of symbiosis between nitrogen-fixing bacteria and legumes spurred the eventual question of whether it is possible in non-legume plants, including cereals. However, the path from the idea to its successful realization is in this case quite bumpy,” says Dr. Alicja Ziemienowicz, a research biologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and an adjunct professor at the University of Lethbridge. She is co-leading this nitrogen fixation research with her AAFC colleague Dr. François Eudes.

“There are three biotechnological approaches for biological nitrogen fixation in cereals, and all require genetic engineering of bacteria or plants or both,” she explains. “The first one is to create rhizobium-legume-like symbiosis in cereals; in other words, to convince rhizobia and cereals to form an interaction similar to the interaction of rhizobia with legumes. The second approach aims at improving bacteria that live inside cereal plants or in the soil right next to cereal roots so these bacteria can perform nitrogen fixation more efficiently.”

However, these two strategies would rely on the use of bio-fertilizer inoculants, which are not always as effective as crop growers would like and are not as convenient as having the trait in the seed.

“When I joined the team of Dr. François Eudes at AAFC’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre about five years ago, we decided to take the third approach to the biotechnological solutions for the nitrogen fixation problem,” adds Ziemienowicz. “This approach is perhaps the most challenging one but also the most promising. It involves the direct transfer of bacterial nitrogen fixation (nif) genes into the plant.”

Ziemienowicz is an expert in this type of research and has been working on development of better technologies for plant improvement for over 20 years. She is excited to be applying her knowledge and skills to nitrogen fixation in cereals “to achieve practical and applicable outcomes in a research area that is so important for Canadian and global agriculture.”

“Many have labelled nitrogen-fixing cereal crops as the ‘holy grail,’” notes Lauren Comin, research manager with the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC). “Nitrogen-fixing cereals could bring a lot of significant benefits. First of all is the benefit to the farmer’s profit. Obviously producers would save money by reducing input costs, and there could be time savings as well. Those benefits alone are enough for us to get excited.”

Ziemienowicz states, “Nitrogen fertilizers contribute about 20 per cent of cereal crop production costs, not including costs of fertilizer application: fuel, machinery, labour. Cereal crops capable of fixing nitrogen for their own needs will reduce crop dependence on nitrogen fertilizers, and will increase their performance and productivity in nitrogen-deficient soils.”

Both Comin and Ziemienowicz point out that nitrogen-fixing cereals would also contribute to sustainability. “There is an ever-growing interest in sustainability from those on the farm and off the farm. Plants that could fix all or some of their nitrogen would mean fewer synthetic applications, less nitrogen loss to the atmosphere and less leaching into the waterways,” says Comin.

Eudes and Ziemienowicz began this research in 2014 with a two-year proof-of-concept study, funded by AWC and Alberta Innovates. Last year’s research was funded by AWC and the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission. Recently, the research was approved for three-year co-funding by all three of these agencies. In this upcoming work, Ziemienowicz and Eudes will be collaborating with AAFC wheat breeders Drs. Robert Graf and Harpinder Randhawa.

Ziemienowicz and Eudes’ research so far has involved triticale. “Most procedures that we employ in this project work more efficiently in triticale than in wheat,” says Ziemienowicz. “Once we obtain nitrogen-fixing triticale, we will transfer this trait into wheat using interspecies breeding techniques. Moreover, lessons learned from development of this trait in triticale will help us to apply it to other crop species.”

If all goes as expected, they will produce triticale plants that have all the characteristics of the triticale parent plus the ability to fix nitrogen. Ziemienowicz thinks it will take at least 10 more years to develop nitrogen-fixing wheat. “We need about three years to produce and test the nitrogen-fixing triticale plants. Then, we need a few years to transfer the trait to wheat. Also, it takes years for commercialization of a plant with a novel trait.”

Even though it is many years away, the path to commercialization could be as challenging as the scientific path to develop nitrogen-fixing cereals.

“The Canadian ‘plants with novel traits’ approach is different from much of the rest of the world. [In Canada] it doesn’t really matter what process you used [to introduce a trait]; it’s whether it is a new trait that has never appeared before,” explains Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada Inc., a not-for-profit organization that brings together partners from all sectors of the cereals value chain.

“However, there would be some significant regulatory hurdles [for GE nitrogen-fixing wheat] in other markets like the EU or Japan because of the unfounded public perception around recombinant DNA technology.”

From Dahl’s point of view, recombinant DNA technology has provided great benefits, both economic and environmental, in crops like corn, soybeans and canola. But he is uncertain about what the cereals industry could do to change negative public perceptions of the technology. “That’s a question I have been asking for 20 years. I’m not quite sure of the answer, whether it’s an issue around technology in plant breeding or technology in pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Very often public perception does not match up with the science and what science is telling us. The gap between scientific understanding and public perception sometimes can be very large, and that is difficult to cross.”

Dahl notes another consideration in commercialization. “We would have to ensure that, if a new product is commercialized, it would be done in a way that doesn’t jeopardize our current exports.” That would require such steps as obtaining regulatory approvals in importing countries and using identity-preserved systems to keep the GE grain separate from other grain. Another factor would be development of a policy on the low-level presence of GE crop material in grain shipments.

Despite the challenges, AWC hasn’t shied away from funding Eudes and Ziemienowicz’s work. “Investing in genetic engineering technology today does not mean that we’ll be harvesting a GE crop in August. Developing new varieties is really a long-term game. And depending on which novel traits we’re seeking, the benefits could far outweigh the perceived negatives,” says Comin.

Ed. Note: A longer in-depth story on this topic will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of Alberta Seed Guide.

 

St. John’s, B.C. and Israeli companies collaborate to breed new pot strains

-

Three companies are working together to launch a facility in St. John's that would breed new strains of marijuana leaf tissue that could then be sold as intellectual property to licensed producers. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

A St. John’s entrepreneur is working with two other companies to launch an operation in Newfoundland that will focus on developing different strains of cannabis and hemp.

Chris Snellen is the founder of CEPG Systems, which designs controlled-environment plant-growth systems and currently operates a hydroponic grow operation in the city’s east end that cultivates lettuce, mushrooms and other plants.

He’s now partnering with Future Farm Technologies of B.C. and Rahan Meristem, an Israeli company, to start a hemp breeding program in St. John’s.

The project will focus on growing new cannabis strains specifically tailored for specific medical and commercial uses.

The collaboration between the three companies will go ahead once they get a dealer license from Health Canada, which will  allow them to start doing research and development on new cannabis strains.

The plan isn’t to start producing large quantities of smokeable pot, but to develop the strains themselves as small amounts of cannabis leaf tissue, which will ideally be sold as intellectual property to licensed producers around the world.

Snellen said the plan is to eventually produce new strains that can be used for both medical, industrial and recreational use. He hopes to have some ready by this time next year.

Source: CBC

Clubbing Clubroot

-

Photo: Janet Kanters

On the Prairies, clubroot appeared in Alberta in 2003, in Saskatchewan in 2008 and Manitoba in 2013. As any grower can tell you, it’s a nasty canola disease that usually worsens in a field every year, partly because the spores are very easy to spread and so hardy they can survive for up to two decades in the soil. Combine this fact with the strong prices that canola fetches these days – widely encouraging back-to-back or two-year rotations – and you have a big problem.

Companies are certainly moving as quickly as possible to produce seed with effective resistance to clubroot, but breeding to defend against this particular pathogen involves navigating a wide range of complex challenges.

“Clubroot has a very short lifecycle resulting in several generations per season,” explains Dr. Marcus Weidler, vice president of seed operations at Bayer CropScience, “enabling the pathogen to react to changes in its environment very quickly, including new crop resistance genes.”

Dr. Jed Christianson, pathology lead at Monsanto Canada, explains that clubroot’s large and quickly-adapting population sizes means that it takes relatively long canola rotations of three or four years to see significant drops in the number of viable spores in the soil, and very long rotations of over 10 years for spores to effectively disappear.

“Each gall produced on a canola root can contain billions of spores,” he says. “So, given the numbers of spores generated, even very rare events like the emergence of individual spores that have gained the ability to infect resistant canola will happen over a fairly short number of cropping cycles. A one in a billion event doesn’t seem that unlikely to happen when you’re given 20 billion chances.”

Combine this with the fact not all clubroot pathotypes (races) have been identified, and it’s therefore difficult, explains Weidler, to develop a canola variety that is resistant to all potential pathotypes to which a plant may be exposed.

Dr. Igor Falak reminds us that it was in 2013 that a new clubroot pathotype was identified, one to which all canola varieties on the market carrying resistance to the original 2003 pathotype were susceptible. Although hybrids with the initial type of resistance continue to hold their own on most infested acres, the number of fields with the new pathotype is increasing annually. Falak, senior research scientist with Corteva Agriscience, blames this situation on “years of canola-on-canola.”

In addition, he notes that although clubroot “is similar to another disease of canola (blackleg), where canola products may carry race specific resistance,” clubroot-resistant canola varieties “do not have ‘fallback’ resistance mechanisms, unlike blackleg-resistant products that also have a different type of stable resistance.”

More breeding challenges are found in the fact that because canola plants carry no clubroot resistance genes, all the major seed companies are actively testing resistance genes found in rutabaga, cabbage and turnip. However, Weidler notes that because these species are only remotely related to canola, it’s far from easy to transfer genes between them without also transferring additional unwanted genetic “baggage” that negatively impacts yield, canola quality or agronomics.

If all this wasn’t enough, clubroot is a challenging organism to deal with, having unique characteristics – described by Weidler as a form of life “somewhere between a bacterium and a fungus.”

Christianson concludes that the biggest challenge in creating clubroot-resistant canola seed is to introduce resistance “while continuing to improve hybrid performance for yield, maturity, standability, resistance to other diseases, harvestability, seed quality and all of the other attributes that are important to growers’ success.”

Breeding Steps to Develop Clubroot-Resistant Canola Seed

Christianson says the steps involved in breeding clubroot-resistant varieties are relatively simple, and that any breakthroughs relating to resistance genes “are really just the discovery and characterization of more of them through concerted screening efforts.”

The entire process is a matter of crossbreeding canola with resistant relatives through normal pollination procedures and recovering offspring that are clubroot-resistant. “Those offspring then have to be crossed with canola again and again through many generations, selecting the resistant offspring at each generation for use in the next cycle to obtain plants that maintain resistance, but have recovered the characteristics of high-performing canola,” Christianson explains.

Weidler adds that unwanted genetic material from the resistance donor that negatively impacts the agronomic performance of the offspring is removed through several crossings of the offspring with elite parent stock. “Using molecular breeding tools, we can check the progress towards the end goal,” he notes. “Ideally, only the genetic sequence conferring clubroot resistance has been transferred and no other parts of the donor genome remain in the offspring.”

Breeding Progress

DowDupont was the first company in Canada to market clubroot resistant hybrids in 2009 (45H29).

“Our hybrids have multi-source and multi-race resistance to clubroot, and have a high level of resistance to the most prevalent clubroot race – race 3 – along with resistance to races 2, 5, 6 and 8,” Falak notes. “We have five hybrids with clubroot resistance: 45H29, 45H33, 45CS40, 45CM36 and 45H37. Pioneer hybrid 45CM36 is one of our newest products that contains a new source of clubroot resistance that confers resistance to both the initial type and new pathotypes, and can be rotated with the original resistant hybrids.”

Hybrid 45CM36 was launched in 2017 and is widely available to western Canadian famers for the 2018 growing season.

For its part, Bayer CropScience has “identified several new potential resistance sources,” says Weidler, “and we have been able to demonstrate that these are different from what is currently on the market.”

Christianson says that as Monsanto nears “actual commercial entry into the marketplace, we will have more to share about how second-generation resistance fits in with existing resistance traits to provide a sound disease management strategy.”

No matter what resistant canola varieties are marketed, no company can predict how long a new variety will last before it’s compromised. This depends on too many factors, explains Weidler, including the resistance gene, environmental conditions and management practices.

All the companies strongly agree that the existence of varieties with resistance is only part of the clubroot solution.

Weidler emphasizes the importance of an integrated disease management approach for clubroot, and fully supports the recommendations of the Canola Council of Canada.

Falak and Christianson echo the sentiment. “All resistance traits will be effective for longer periods of time if they are used judiciously,” says Christianson. “Choosing resistant seed is only one part of a successful disease management strategy. Growers need to include crop rotation, field scouting and early detection of clubroot, and minimizing soil movement between fields on equipment.”

Falak agrees. He says following a proper canola rotation as well as rotation of resistance genes, combined with preventing soil movement and other agronomic measures “would enable sustainable clubroot management that would prolong efficacy of any new resistance sources that are introduced.”