7 Ways Seed-Applied Technologies are Evolving

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From boosting yield to helping you look at what you’re trying to accomplish on the farm, these products hold a lot of promise for the future.

Next-generation seed treatment technologies, non-chemistry-based seed treatment technologies, and the potential of biologicals and microbes are all driving the industry forward. Farmers need to keep in mind that they must not only keep up with the latest trends, but they also have to make sure they are asking the right questions. In order to do be able to do that, you need to know how these products are growing and evolving.

They may help boost yield.

Russell Trischuk, regional technical managerfor BASF Functional Crop Care in Saskatoon, Sask., says to get to the next plateau of yield, there’s a lot yet to be done with these technologies. “We’ve made big strides in yield over the past few decades due to effective fungicides, herbicides and insecticides plus a big contribution from genetics technologies. Still, the yield increase year over year isn’t what is used to be. Through on-seed technologies we can afford the plant the ability to manage abiotic and even some biotic stresses. We believe these products really will take us to the next level of production in our crops not only in Western Canada, but globally.”

They may help you rely less on chemistry.

John Kibbee is the owner of Kibbee ST Consultingin Guelph, Ont.He has a history of product development and technical management experience in seed treatments. He says in terms of the non-chemistry-based seed treatment technologies that are of interest to him, microbes for seed treatment — also called biologicals — can do some incredible things “and we’ve only scratched the surface.” Kibbee believes seed treatments have become a low-impact crop protection method, and microbes are the next evolution. “They’re green, have a better acceptance among consumers, but are complicated to formulate and turn into a commercial product that works consistently in the field.”

They may help enhance the effectiveness of the chemistry you’re using.

Trischuksays the use of biologicals in combination with chemistry allows them to plug holes in their crop protection systems and improve the crops they are putting it on. “A biological seed treatment is a technology where it’s easy to demonstrate these benefits,” he states, adding a chemical treatment is very effective for protecting the seed and plant as it gets out of the ground.

These products will help protect the plant during its most crucial stage.

“We know that within a two or three-week period after planting, the impact of that chemical treatment starts to wear off. This is where biological treatments come in,” says Trischuk. He explains that it takes some time for that microorganism to grow and colonize the root system or soil surrounding it, and due to that they see a delayed response in disease control. “This is right in line for when we see a chemical treatment begin to lose its efficacy,” he says. “We can bridge that gap that we see until later in the season when a foliar treatment can be applied.”

These technologies are changing how we think about seed treatments.

Kibbee says it took him a long time to adjust his thinking, as he spent his career trying to protect crops from microbes, but now he thinks about nurturing them and allowing them to survive. Looking to the future, what sort of microbes can we harness for use in seed treatments of the future? “Rhizobia is an obvious one for nitrogen fixation on legumes and is something we’re already seeing used. Azospirillum is popular in Latin America for nitrogen fixation on cereals,” says Kibbee.

Seed treatments are changing how manufacturers commercialize products.

“We now have a dedicated seed and soilborne pathogens screening program [at BASF],” Trischuk explains. “All molecules are screened not only for efficacy against foliar diseases, but against all major diseases attacking the seed and seedling in the soil. That’s in contrast to what we used to do, where we’d find an active ingredient that was a good fungicide, develop it for foliar use, and then look to see if there’s was a fit on seed or in soil.” He believes that change in philosophy has allowed them to identify a couple of molecules that they don’t think would have passed screening for a foliar fungicide but have been found to be very effective on seed or in soil.

They’ll help change how you make product selections. 

In the end, Trischuk says when comparing biological and chemical solutions — especially with regard to consistency of performance and expectation of results — farmers need to examine their expectations.Some of these products don’t have a requirement to submit efficacy data to receive registration,” he says. “Make sure you ask questions about the product. If there’s only been one trial, how credible is that data? At BASF we try to give a lot of info about what the grower can expect. If you want to know how something works, ask for data.”

Revolutionizing with CRISPR

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There are plenty of buzzwords surrounding the seed industry in 2018 — GMOs, gene-editing, organic and, of course, CRISPR. While we know a lot surrounding the debate of GMOs versus organic and whether or not GMOs and gene-editing overlap, one gene-editing technology still seems a mystery.

So, what exactly is CRISPR-Cas9, and why does it matter to the seed industry?

CRISPR is a genome editing system that could benefit the seed industry by allowing breeders to make minor changes into the genomes of existing high performance cultivars that will result in enhanced yield, ability to withstand stresses such as drought, heat and diseases and give crops the nutritional qualities that consumers are looking for.

“From an academic perspective, I like to think of plants as machines,” says Nat Graham, a postdoctoral associate from the Voytas lab at the University of Minnesota. “Everything runs on a code — DNA. What we’re focused on from a genome engineering perspective is how can we manipulate DNA for our gain?”

“With traditional transgenics, you would take a genetic sequence and randomly insert it into the DNA, which can disrupt the sequence,” Graham explains. “If it disrupts, you just keep trying again until it doesn’t cause a problem. If you want to turn a sequence off, you’d need to use mutagenesis. CRISPR-Cas9 is a new tool for genome engineering, and it allows breeders to go through the genome, find a sequence and precisely alter it.

Graham continues by explaining that currently, CRISPR is used to “turn off,” sequences through mutation. His current research focuses on how to insert new sequences by using CRISPR-Cas9, but he emphasizes that most products that come from CRISPR currently turn off mutations.

CRISPR-Cas9 is a protein found in bacteria that were under attack from bacteriophages. It can recognize sequences of invaders and cut the DNA sequences apart. Researchers discovered that the proteins could be programmed to recognize a new sequence and introduce mutations site-specifically into the DNA sequence.

There are a few different ways that CRISPR works to “turn-off,” sequences. Graham explains that one way is to alter the sequence, thus the gene no longer makes sense. If the gene sequence doesn’t make sense, it wouldn’t make the product anymore.

Another way to “turn-off,” the sequence is by completely removing it, which would make the sequence no longer functional. It would stop making the product, because it would no longer be there.

Finally, you could alter current genes. In this idea, instead of traditional mutagenesis, where a researcher would create a desirable sequence, find the sequence to be changed and replace it with the new, more desirable sequence, a researcher could find a specific base pair in a sequence and alter it completely. Graham likes to use sentences as examples for this idea: if you had the sentence “the cat was fat,” and you wanted to change it to “the rat was fat,” CRISPR would allow a researcher to find the sentence and change the “c” to an “r” to create the desired sentence.

Another example he uses is that CRISPR directly edits gene “text,” while genetic modification is more like inserting a new chapter into a book.

“Traditional breeding takes advantage of natural mutations to find new traits,” Graham says. “The difference is we’re causing mutations to happen in the way we choose. We’re accelerating the natural process.”

“CRISPR is new from an academic perspective — it hit the science journals in 2012,” Graham says. “We’re still learning about it and how to make it better. There’s a lot we still need to learn.”

CRISPR is also beneficial to the seed industry because it won’t be regulated like GMOs. Gijs van Rooijen, chief scientific officer of Genome Alberta, says that CRISPR regulations are similar to traditional genetics across Canada.

“If you’re making minor changes such as deletions or insertions, it isn’t different than anything from traditional breeding,” says van Rooijen.

In Canada, crops are regulated through plants with novel traits (PNT). Regardless of how the plant was created, be it through traditional breeding or gene-editing, the government must ask questions about whether or not the trait is novel and if it would make the plant more ‘weedy’ or difficult to control.

“Whether crops are generated through traditional breeding, GMOs, or gene-editing, they will be looking at the risks associated in relation to human health, animal health and environmental health,” van Rooijen says.

“The government also takes into account trade risks when dealing with a new cultivar,” van Rooijen says. “Right now, if you’re growing a GMO variety, chances are it’s going to cause more issues with your trading partners, particularly in Europe. However, if you’re growing traditional varieties, it’s usually okay trade-wise.”

Currently, one of the only gene-edited varieties starting to be marketed in Canada is from Cibus’s Rapid Trait Development System. Developed in 2015, Cibus has begun trialing a sulfonylura (SU) canola trait, which will be marketed with their Draft herbicide. Together, they can control key weeds such as common buckwheat, common ragweed and redroot pigweed.

“With the advances in CRIPSR and gene-editing technology, the technology and regulations are actually straightforward, so smaller companies are encouraged to begin developing their own products,” van Rooijen says. “CRISPR is actually giving smaller companies the ability to compete with larger companies.”

Van Rooijen says that currently, CRISPR research in crops is focused around developing varieties similar to GMOs. However, in using CRISPR in North America, these crops can be regulated as non-GMO. In particular, research has been focused on herbicide tolerance.

“You can imagine that a lot of companies are beginning to look at traits that focus on higher nutritional quality, such as high-oleic soybeans or high-fibre wheat,” van Rooijen says. “These varieties are likely to be seen in the next couple of years. Since companies can make edits to the existing genome, varieties can be developed much faster, but current research focuses on traits that have already been approved.”

Currently, through traditional breeding, it takes around seven years to create a new desirable variety. With genetic modification, it still takes around 10 to 12 years due to regulatory barriers and high costs. Currently, researchers believe genome editing will only take around three to five years, since gene-editing is more precise than other breeding methods.

However, the best part about CRISPR would be it wouldn’t change the way growers have been farming already.

“Growing gene-edited crops won’t be much different from growing GMO varieties,” van Rooijen says. “By providing the available traits, it means growers can use herbicides only when needed, which is better for the crops and the environment. CRISPR will provide similar benefits that GMOs already bring, however they’ll be regulated differently.”

CRISPR could provide growers with improved disease resistance, drought tolerance and higher yields, while providing consumers with better food quality, nutrition and a longer shelf life.

Van Rooijen also believes CRISPR has the potential to expand grower’s export markets. “Growers have the potential to expand into markets where people are weary of GMOs,” he says.

In addition, since CRISPR crops are easier to create than GMOs, van Rooijen says there’s a possibility that the seeds might be sold at a reduced rate in comparison to other GMO traits.

However, van Rooijen says the biggest benefit CRISPR will have is an environmental impact.

“There’s no question that consumers are concerned about the environmental impact of how we grow our food,” van Rooijen says. “We need to grow more efficient crops. With CRISPR, we can grow the amount of food we need to feed the population, but we also increase our efficiency while reducing stress on the environment.”

“CRISPR and gene-editing technologies are revolutionizing the way novel traits can be created,” says van Rooijen. “The positive effects outweigh the negatives, and we must continue to find the consumer’s support so that we can provide the world with better opportunities for growers, consumers and the environment. It’s almost irresponsible to not take this opportunity.”

We’ve come a long way in agriculture. From crop domestication to cross breeding to plant breeding based on genetic information to GMOs, it seems the natural way to go from here is target breeding. Whatever may happen with these technologies, it seems one thing is for certain: CRISPR and gene-editing are paving the future of agriculture.

“Pardon Me – Do You Have Any Grey Poupon?”

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The first hybrid brown mustard and a whopping 61 other cultivars were put forward for registration at this year’s meeting of the Prairie Grain Development Committee.

In some ways, this year’s meeting of the Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC) belonged to the mustard plant.

Held at the end of February 2018 in Banff, Alta., the PGDC’s Prairie Recommending Committee for Oilseeds (PRCO) put forward only one line for registration, but it’s a major one — the first hybrid brown mustard ever released.

B3318 has significantly higher (24 per cent) yield than the check variety, Centennial Brown. Developed in the breeding program of Bifang Cheng, the condiment mustard breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Saskatoon, it’s aimed at the European market, where brown mustard is used to produce Dijon mustard.

But according to Kevin Hursh, executive director for the Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission, it opens up a wealth of possibilities for the Canadian mustard industry.

“A 20 per cent yield boost over the check variety is hugely significant for growers. The question will be if can we produce hybrids that present a good value proposition for growers,” he says. “Preliminary information seems to indicate that yes, we should be able to do that. Companies specialize in hybrid production both in Alberta and B.C., and with winter nurseries in Chile, the industry should be able to help this take off.”

PGDC acts as a forum for the exchange of information relevant to the development of improved cultivars of grain crops for the western Canadian Prairies and advises regulatory agencies about legislation and regulations governing grain breeding, cultivar production and sector development.

This year, a whopping 62 cultivars in four different crop categories were recommended for registration, delivering even more options for stakeholders throughout the agriculture sector and beyond.

Among those cultivars were 23 pulse lines put forward by the Pulses and Special Crops Committee (PRCPSC). As demand for pulses goes up, breeding for new pulses to satisfy consumers is booming along with it, notes Peter Frohlich, pulses and special crops project manager for the Canadian International Grains Institute (Cigi).

He addressed the PRCPSC this year to unveil some recent work done by Cigi in the area of pulse flour. Under the Advancing Pulse Flour Processing and Applications project, Cigi is continuing the development and optimization of pulse flours as high-quality food ingredients to further their commercial use in pulse-based products.

“One of the biggest obstacles for the pulse market is flavour. Pulses are extremely nutritious, however consumers often don’t like the flavour of them when used in certain products,” Frolich says.

According to Frohlich, as demand for ingredients like pulse flour goes up, processors will be looking for ingredients that add good flavour — or none at all — to their products. That’s where breeders involved with PGDC come in, Frohlich adds. “Addressing flavour issues around pulse ingredients starts at the breeding level.”

As processors look for ingredients with qualities like improved flavour profiles, breeders continue to deal with new challenges and opportunities presented by new technology. The theme for this year’s PGDC plenary session was disruptive change and transformational technology. Speakers included Tim Sharbel, professor in the plant sciences department at the University of Saskatchewan, and Erin Armstrong, industry and regulatory affairs director for Canterra Seeds.

Sharbel spoke about launching an apomixis research program at the Global Institute for Food Security, located at the University of Saskatchewan. Apomixis is a naturally occurring phenomenon in certain types of plants like St. John’s wort and Kentucky bluegrass, which reproduce seed asexually, whereby all offspring are genetically identical to the mother plant.

It isn’t found in any food crops, but if apomixis could be successfully introduced into agriculture, Sharbel says it could be a disruptive technology. Essentially, it would enable the immediate fixation of any desired genotype and lead to faster, simpler breeding schemes.

“People have been studying the biology of these asexual plants and animals for 100 years or so, but it’s only 20 or 30 years ago that people started thinking about it in terms of agriculture,” he says. “There are a number of laboratories around the world studying apomixis. It’s worth billions of dollars if we can get it working.”

Armstrong’s presentation focused on two value creation models for cereals she has been working on with Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission. Together they co-chair the Value Creation Working Group (VCWG), a sub-committee within the federal government’s Grains Roundtable (GRT). It was formed in 2016 to inform the federal government as to the potential for a new royalty system for cereals. (See page X to read more about value creation in cereals)

“The idea that value creation and capture could be a part of Canadian agriculture in the future is something that could really change how things work. We could see an influx of new investment in breeding and new opportunities for other companies and organizations to be involved,” says Mitchell Japp, PGDC chairperson.

“It’s at the idea stage right now and we don’t know how it will play out, but it will ultimately affect both the breeding side and the seed development side.”

BY THE NUMBERS

The breakdown of cultivars recommended for registration at this year’s PGDC meeting is:

PRCWRT:

  • 14 Canada Western Red Spring
  • 1 Canada Northern Hard Red
  • 1 Canada Western General Purpose
  • 1 in Canada Western Special Purpose
  • 2 Canada Western Special Purpose winter wheat
  • 3 Canada Western Durum Wheat
  • 2 spring triticale
  • 1 winter triticale
  • 1 fall rye

PRCOB:

  • 3 oat
  • 7 barley

PRCO: 1 mustard

PRCPSC:

  • 5 dry bean
  • 6 lentil
  • 8 faba bean
  • 4 field pea
  • 1 buckwheat

 

Is Intercropping The Future?

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Lethbridge-based Eric Bremer, head of R&D for Western Ag Innovations, has learned a thing or two about intercropping during his time researching the practice.

“Intercropping can have substantial benefits, but not always. You have to have some good-sized benefits come out of it in order for it to be widely adopted. Growers want to know it’s going to work for them before taking it on,” Bremer says. He’s currently conducting research trials intercropping canola with pulses like pea and lentil.

For producers considering intercropping for the first time, Bremer says it’s important to “start small,” and get comfortable with the process before growing whole quarters.

Accidents Happen

Derek Axten started intercropping by accident in 2009, when he seeded a field of brown mustard into lentil stubble. When he harvested the field, he expected to see an overall loss. Instead, the lentil yield matched that of his other lentil fields — and he got a great load of mustard to boot.

“I thought, ‘What if we do this intentionally?’” says Axten, who together with his wife Tannis was named Saskatchewan’s Outstanding Young Farmer in 2017. “It took us until 2011 to get to an organized intercrop. Since then, we’ve always seen a net benefit.”

On their land near Minton and Milestone, Sask., the Axtens grow peas/canola, flax/chickpea, flax/lentil, lentil/mustard, and forage pea, maple pea or winter pea with mustard or canola.

In terms of land equivalency ratios, or the amount of monocropped land needed to achieve yields equal to those of an intercropped system at the same management level, the Axtens average somewhere between 1.25 and 1.3, although they have seen years over 1.5. In 2017, some of their intercropped fields were a wash. “But averaging with the other years we’re still ahead of the game,” he says.

This is in part owing to the fact that they don’t use any nitrogen (N) on their intercrops, because N is supplied by the pulse in each combination. Added to this, disease and insect pressure is so low on their intercropped fields that they almost never have to spray.

It’s not known exactly why most intercrops see a reduction in disease and insect pressure, according to Scott Chalmers, diversification specialist for Manitoba Agriculture’s Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization (WADO). But the data is there to prove this is often the case.

Chalmers has been studying intercrop mixtures since 2009, mostly focusing on yield and nitrogen and phosphorous interactions in pea/canola (or peanola) intercrops.

Intercropping with canola has major benefits for peas: because peas, which typically fall to the ground, are held up by the canola, they experience less disease pressure and pea quality is higher. They are also much easier to harvest. “You’re not having to drag your combine knife through the ground,” says Chalmers. “It’s easier on the equipment.”

Axten says intercropping is an attempt to mimic what happens in a “highly functioning, highly diverse” native ecosystem, where some 120 or more species might coexist. “We’ve been growing two crops together, which is nothing like it is in a native system. But we’ve been seeing an improvement with two crops over one, and since then we’ve added clovers as companion crops.”

But intercropping is not about altruism for the Axtens: it’s a business decision. “We’ve never ever had less profit from intercropping,” he says. “And with the reduction of inputs you’re carrying so much less risk. It’s about how much money you keep as well as how much you make.”

Assessing the Risk

But any attempt to intercrop can make growers quickly realize just how many stumbling blocks they may run into. The process can be incredibly detailed.

Bremer has collaborated on his intercropping project with Alberta Agriculture agronomy research scientist Doon Pauly. In this particular experiment, Pauly notes that the pulse crop was the primary one that researchers were attempting to grow, with canola being the “bonus” crop. For the purposes of the research, Pauly and Bremer had to carefully manage the canola through low seeding rates and fertilizer placement and timing, to ensure it didn’t take over the pulse crop.

For seeding, Pauly and the team ran their pulse seed through the seeding discs and the canola seed through sideband fertilizer discs in a single pass.

“The fertilizer component of the current project is really interesting,” says Pauly. “We applied a known fertilizer volume at constant pressure to the entire plot using four drip irrigation lines for the eight rows of pulse and eight rows of canola.”

Fertility treatments were applied within days of seeding (theoretically N at this time should limit the pulse crop’s ability to fix N and also feed canola, making canola very competitive early) or about a month after seeding in-crop. Because the fertilizer solutions were enriched with low levels of 15N, with isotope analyses of plant material the researchers were able to determine if this surface-applied N was picked up by the pulse crop or the canola crop.

There’s a lot yet to be discovered when it comes to intercropping, Pauly says.

“Even with seeding, it’s not like you can just throw canola seed into your air cart with a pulse crop. If they separate out, you may not get the uniform stand you may desire,” Pauly says.

“Harvest is a challenge, too. If you don’t have good synchronization between crop maturities, you can run into problems. You start intercropping and you think, ‘Whoa, I didn’t anticipate that.’ All of a sudden, you start realizing there are certain things you can no longer do that with monocropping wouldn’t be an issue.”

Intercropping is indeed riskier: according to Colin Rosengren, a founding member of Three Farmers, a Saskatchewan-based business that manufactures camelina oil, it’s hard to get crop insurance on intercrop mixtures. In Saskatchewan, producers can get specialty crop insurance on a portion of their intercrops, which guarantees producers the average on their other insured crops. But Rosengren, who intercrops perhaps three quarters of his 6,000-acre operation, says it isn’t worth it for him.

In fact, he believes most producers who intercrop do not carry crop insurance at all. It’s a catch-22 for the industry, as insurers generally won’t offer insurance until a minimum number of acres are intercropped in a province.

“Acres are very significant, but many aren’t insuring, so the numbers officially aren’t there,” says Rosengren.

In terms of harvesting and selling intercropped mixtures, Chalmers says producers might need to modify equipment or buy rotary harrows or a cleaner and will need at least two working augers. “Harvesting takes quite a bit of coordination,” he says.

Bremer agrees.

“It requires more equipment, and for growers to make that investment, there has to be clear benefit.”

Another risk is if buyers are not okay with a small amount of contamination if seed from another crop is found in a producer’s sample, Chalmers points out. “There’s no way you can clean out every canola seed in pea,” he says. “There’s always going to be half a per cent kicking around.”

Planning for Success

Alberta’s Greg Stamp, director of seed sales for Stamp Seeds based in Enchant, agrees that getting into intercropping could present a number of challenges for growers. Although Stamp Seeds helps clients with cover crop projects, they have yet to experiment with intercropping but have seen some of the work that Bremer and his team have done.

“There is definitely potential for this production practice in the future on the Prairies. When you look at the benefits to producers, with reduced pesticide and fertilizer usage, you can see how it could be an attractive way to diversify your operations,” Stamp says.

“As seed growers we are multiplying and growing seed crops on our farm or in the local area. We really get to know the characteristics and quirks – good and bad – of the varieties we sell and that can be valuable information for producers trying intercropping for the first time. When you know how a variety will perform in your local area sometimes that can make all the difference.”

Stamp notes also that using certified seed, which comes with a guarantee of health and vigour, will further manage agronomic risk in producers’ intercropping efforts as you are starting with a high-quality seed product.

When Rosengren and his Three Farmers partners first started intercropping, they ran strip trials to compare intercropped and monocropped systems, but they soon abandoned the practice because the benefits were so obvious.

“There are a million products that offer two extra bushels of yield per acre, but that’s pretty hard to measure,” he says. “When you’re talking 25 to 30 per cent extra yield, it’s significant enough to measure. It was dramatic enough that we quit doing the strips.”

Axten also believes intercropping is the way of the future for Western Canadian farming.

“I think of all the problems that have happened in agriculture, things that have come to light in the last 15 years. We keep trying to do this monocrop thing, but I don’t think we’re showing that it works very well.”

By Julienne Isaacs & Marc Zienkiewicz

 

Flipping The Switch

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Thanks to Canadian researcher Igor Kovalchuk, the Canadian Prairies could one day be dotted with fields of medicinal poppies, a major cash crop opportunity. (Photo: University of Lethbridge)

For global researchers studying epigenetics, looking at the surface of the genome could be the key to discovering the next big thing in plant and seed engineering.

Classical genetics has been with us for a long time, ever since Gregor Mendel put forward his laws on the basic mechanisms of heredity in the 19thcentury.

Classical genetics has led to wondrous developments in the area of agriculture, including GM and gene editing technologies. And now, another area of study is on the cusp of changing our ideas about plant function even more.

Epigenetics, although has existed as a concept for nearly eight decades, is becoming a new buzzword that causing lots of chatter in plant breeding and seed circles, and for good reason.

“Epigenetic technologies are on the cusp of being industry-ready. Unlike techniques such as CRISPR, it’s not quite there yet — but very close,” says Michiel Van Lookeren Campagne, head of seeds research at Syngenta.

A field like epigenetics holds great promise for companies like Syngenta, he says, which invests a lot of time and money in dealing with the regulatory hurdles that invariably come with breeding plants that have had their genetic codes altered in some way.

Flipping Switches

Epigenetics comes from the Greek root word epi, meaning “on” or “on top of.”

“Epigenetics essentially sits on top of the layer of classical genetics, which has been the basis of all breeding programs,” says Van Lookeren Campagne.

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence. Epigenetic changes in plants do not occur as a result of any changes to the plant’s DNA, but as a result of other factors like changes to chromosomes that affect gene activity and expression.

Basically, Van Lookeren Campagne explains, epigenetic changes occur when various “switches” in DNA are flipped on and off, triggering different reactions within the plant. He notes that epigenetics as a field really took off in the 1990s when Dutch and American molecular biologists breeding purple petunias obtained a number of unexpected results that were difficult to explain.

They were trying to increase the color intensity of the petals in petunias by introducing a gene inducing the formation of red pigment in the flowers. But instead of intensifying the color, this treatment led to a complete loss of color and the petals turned white. The mechanism causing these effects remained elusive untilAndrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello discovered the cause, earning them the Nobel Prize in Physiology for Medicine for 2006.

Fire and Mello deduced that double-stranded RNA can silence genes, that this RNA interference is specific for the gene whose code matches that of the injected RNA molecule, and that RNA interference can spread between cells and even be inherited.

In other words, genes can be turned on and off like light switches, producing different reactions within a plant without altering the plant’s genetic code in any way.

New Frontier

Those epigenetic changes are ushering in a new frontier for the seed industry as a result. In March, Epicrop Technologies Inc., a company co-founded by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and epigenetics pioneer Sally Mackenzie, announced it had secured US$3.2 million in funding. This funding will be used to further develop epigenetic technology with a focus on large increases in yield and stress tolerance in crops.

“We’re very excited to have previous and new investors on board who appreciate the game changing potential of this technology,” said Michael Fromm, chief executive of Epicrop Technologies.

In the company’s field and greenhouse trials, epigenetically improved plants — soybeans, tomatoes, sorghum and Arabidopsis— show increased yields and stress tolerance.

“Increasing yield and stress tolerance are key goals of most seed companies. Epicrop’s method has the potential to provide these traits by adding epigenetic information directly to the seeds of commercial varieties without adding any genetic material. The unique features of this method readily fit into traditional commercial breeding and seed production methods to facilitate company adoption of this system.”

Poppies on the Prairies

In Alberta, University of Lethbridge Department of Biological Sciences researcher Igor Kovalchuk has gained the reputation as a world leader in epigenetics.

His goal: to produce hardier crops that are increasingly resistant to stress and even able to detect pollution. This capability, in turn, will help to improve the efficiency, profitability and overall success of farms.

Thanks to Kovalchuk, in fact, the Canadian Prairies could one day be dotted with fields of medicinal poppies. He is currently working with a Canadian biotech company that plans to develop a market for the high thebaine poppy industry in Canada. A significant cash crop opportunity, high thebaine poppies are used to create valuable medicines, but unlike their traditional counterparts, cannot easily be converted into heroin.

Kovalchuk is also a driving force behind the establishment of the Alberta Epigenetics Network, the first epigenetic network in Canada.

“Plants have an amazing capacity to respond immediately to stress and to propagate this response so future generations can be better prepared,” he says.

One of the ways plants do this, of course, is via epigenetic changes.

For Van Lookeren Campagne, the doors yet to be unlocked by epigenetics are many, and he’s excited as new research initiatives are undertaken to bring epigenetic technologies to market.

“We now understand the machinery that epigenetic changes are related to, and we’re able to tune that machinery. Now we have to find the applications we can deploy this toward. It holds a lot of potential and promise.”

Editor’s Note: This article was produced with files from Marc Airhart (University of Texas at Austin), Justin Raikes (Epicrop Technologies), Dana Yates (University of Lethbridge)

Ramping Up Variety Development

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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.

 

Food Processing Development Centre Grows Province’s Food And Beverage Industries

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The Food Processing Development Centre (FPDC) is located in Leduc, Alberta.

The production of primary commodities and value-added products is vital to Alberta. Ensuring Alberta producers are getting best value for their products is part of the mandate of the province’s Food Processing Development Centre in Leduc.

The Food Processing Development Centre (FPDC) is a modern, fully equipped pilot plant and product development laboratory facility. Staffed with experienced food scientists, engineers and technologists, it is operated by the Food and Bio Processing Branch of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF). Alberta Agriculture and Forestry provides unique facilities to provide development and research services for agri-food processing companies, as well as those interested in non-food uses for agricultural products.

“Entering the food industry is a capital-intensive venture, and the market has tight margins,” says Wanda Aubee, director of the Food Science and Development Section with the Food Processing Development Centre. “The intent of the centre is to reduce the risks that businesses take on as they enter the sector and start to grow.”

The food and beverage industry is Alberta’s largest secondary manufacturing industry, generating in excess of $13 billion in value of shipments. Through the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, AF opened the centre in 1984. A $5.5 million expansion to the facility was completed in 2002.

Over the past 34 years, a wide range of products have been developed at the centre, from processed meats and cheeses, to baked goods, juices, soups, sauces and baby food. According to Aubee, Alberta’s commodities are often processed outside of Canada, and in turn, the province then imports these value-added products.

“Alberta and Canada are net exporters of agricultural commodities, but Alberta benefits economically by doing value-added processing here rather than importing processed goods,” says Aubee. “Growing the value-added agricultural industry is complex, and the FPDC is one significant asset the province offers to support this transition from commodity-based exports to value added.”

The FPDC does work on projects from outside Alberta, but the majority of projects are Alberta-based. For instance, Siwin Foods Ltd. is one of the centre’s success stories. Siwin Foods is a Chinese company that was looking to establish a processed meat plant in either North America or Australia. According to Aubee, the services the FPDC offered made the decision for Siwin.

“They were able to work with the centre’s food scientists to develop products for the North American palate and to scale up their production in the pilot plant before moving into an incubator suite,” she says. “From there, they built their own facility in Edmonton in 2014 and continue to grow.”

Adjacent to the FPDC is the Agrivalue Processing Business Incubator (APBI), a multi-tenant facility providing infrastructure and services to support and enhance the establishment and growth of new companies and new business ventures in Alberta. The APBI assists with the start-up of new food businesses, providing facilities and programs to help manage the transition from new product development through commercialization, market launch and growth in sales, resulting in graduation and the establishment of their own facilities.

Alberta-based Aliya’s Foods Inc. was a small company producing and manufacturing samosas east of Edmonton. The company recognized the potential growth in Indian cuisine and wanted to expand their operation to include prepared ethnic meals. After accessing the product development and evaluation services of the FPDC, they leased a suite in the APBI.

“Now with sufficient production capacity, Aliya’s focused on the U.S. market and successfully increased their sales to the point where they committed to the investment in a new processing facility,” says Aubee. “In June 2012, Aliya’s Foods graduated to a new $20 million, 40,000 square foot processing facility in the City of Edmonton. Today, they continue to use the services of the FPDC for product improvements and line extensions.”

The FPDC and APBI have a staff complement of 45 people consisting of food safety professionals, food scientists, food technologists, maintenance and administration. The facility is home to PhD and Masters degree food scientists with specializations in crop and plant protein processing, meat processing, dairy processing, sensory science and bakery science.

“The future is very exciting for the food and beverage value-added industry,” says Aubee. “There is an incredible interest in food and flavour, and experimenting with new and innovative processes and products. People are experiencing food as a key part of their vacation destinations, as an influencer in their health and wellness, and as a teaching tool to bring their children closer to nature in urban environments. These are opportunities for entrepreneurs to meet the needs of the consumer and provide unique products made right here in Alberta.”

Going forward, the FPDC offers Alberta growers the opportunity to increase their acres and/or the possibility of growing new and novel crops in the province. Indeed, Aubee says the centre is seeking new and different sources of food protein to experiment with.

“As the world population grows, there’s an increased need for agriculture and agri-food products, and specifically, people are looking for alternatives to traditional protein sources,” she notes. “This is an opportunity for Alberta producers to increase their growing of pulses – it’s not only a great rotational crop, it has an incredible nutritional profile, it’s high in fibre and it’s really good for the soil. The FPDC has the equipment and expertise to explore what could be possible with plant protein, including extracting protein from grains and oilseeds.”

The FPDC is one of the largest food processing development centres in North America, and one of the most complete with the APBI. An expansion to the APBI was announced in 2016 as part of the Alberta Jobs Plan. Planning is currently underway for this expansion, offering Alberta growers – and companies – myriad opportunity to create added value to the province’s high-quality crop offerings.

 

On The Way To Nitrogen-Fixing Cereals

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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.

Ziemienowicz explains that not all of the applied fertilizer is actually used by the crop, and the unused portion can cause problems including pollution of water sources for humans, livestock and aquatic species, and emission of nitrous oxide, a very potent greenhouse gas. In addition, production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is very energy-intensive and generates carbon dioxide.

“So, although nitrogen fertilizers provide farmers with great tools to increase cereal crop productivity, they come with costs that are a burden both for farmers and the environment,” says Ziemienowicz. “It is generally recognized that the introduction of biological nitrogen fixation into cereals and other major non-legume crops would be one of the most significant contributions that biotechnology could make to agriculture.”

Substantial Progress

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.

“We are open to investing in the full spectrum of available technologies,” notes Comin. “Technology changes really quickly in farming just as in any other industry. So we need to make sure that Alberta producers have every possible tool in their toolbox and that they keep up with technology changes.”

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.”

In the initial stage of their research, the research team developed tools needed for this work including an AAFC nifcluster, peptide nanocarriers, DNA delivery technology, microspore culture and regeneration, selectable markers and selection procedures, and a nitrogen-fixation assay for plant cells.

Their creation of the AAFC nifcluster is a good example of the important advances they are making. Ziemienowicz explains the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen is limited to a small number of organisms including certain bacteria. These nitrogen-fixing organisms have about three or four genes responsible for producing the nitrogenase enzyme, which converts atmospheric nitrogen gas into ammonia, and about 10 to 12 genes that produce co-factors needed for nitrogenase activity.

“Prior to our work, biotechnologists were able to deliver only two out of 16 essentialnifgenes into plants. Recently, an Australian group reported delivery of 16 nifgenes, but each gene individually. In addition, both research efforts were done in tobacco as a model plant, and not in cereals,” she says.

“The AAFC nifcluster that we developed contains all 16 essential nifgenes and two selectable marker genes (needed to maintain the nifgenes in the plant genome). The cluster was designed to allow expression of the bacterial genes in triticale and wheat plant cells.”

In the next stage of the work, the researchers used their tools to move the AAFC nifcluster into triticale cells. “We deliver the AAFC nifcluster into triticale cells using a unique nanocarrier developed by Dr. Eudes’ team, in particular by Dr. Trevor MacMillan. The nanocarrier is a group of cell-penetrating peptides that carry DNA cargo into a specific location in a plant cell,” explains Ziemienowicz.

“We chose plant mitochondria as the best delivery place because these plant organelles offer the most optimal environment for nitrogenase production and activity. We use microspore cells (precursors of pollen) because they can be relatively easily regenerated into entire plants.

“Once the cargo-carrier nanocomplexes reach their destination, the DNA is released and integrated into the mitochondrial genomes, and the nifgenes are expressed, which leads to nitrogenase production.”

Recently, the researchers have shown that all the delivered nifgenes are indeed expressed in the triticale microspore mitochondria and that the nitrogenase enzyme is produced. Plus, they have demonstrated that the nif-enriched microspores definitely fix atmospheric nitrogen. The research team is now working on regenerating nif-enriched triticale plantlets.

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.”

 Looking Down the Road

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

One factor will be regulatory requirements for genetically engineered (GE) products. In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) evaluates all plants with novel traits for safety to the environment before they can be grown or fed to livestock. The CFIA website states: “The CFIA defines a plant with a novel trait (PNT) as a new variety of a species that has one or more traits that are novel to that species in Canada. A trait is considered to be novel when it has both of these characteristics: it is new to stable, cultivated populations of the plant species in Canada; and it has the potential to have an environmental effect…. Novel traits can be developed through various techniques, including, but not limited to, genetic engineering. Examples (other than genetic engineering) are mutagenesis, gene editing, cell fusion, and traditional breeding….This product-focused approach means that not all PNTs are developed through genetic engineering, and that not all products of genetic engineering are PNTs.”

“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.

At present, many importing countries have a zero-tolerance policy if GE grain that has not been approved by the importing country is present at low levels in grain shipped to that country. This approach can seriously disrupt trade. Canada has been working with its international partners on alternatives to deal with this issue and has released a policy model to encourage international and domestic discussions on the way forward.

“Canada is a leader on the low-level presence issue,” notes Dahl. “Through the Canada Grains Council, we are very active on pushing forward with some solutions to that issue internationally.”

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.

We are very excited about the prospect of nitrogen-fixing wheat. A made-in-Alberta solution would make it all the more exciting, especially a solution that we are part of,” she adds. “When we first invested in the project we did consider it high risk, but the potential benefits are significant. And we also had to consider the potential discoveries that could be made throughout the research that may also have applications that solve other problems that producers encounter. So even if the benefits wouldn’t apply to wheat but maybe another crop, these serendipitous discoveries could have a high value as well.”

Becoming Seed Smart: The Most Important Thing You Can Do For Your Crop Is Check Your Seed’s Health

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What’s the best thing you can do for your crops? Is it making sure they get enough water, sunlight and love? What about having the best herbicides and pesticides to protect them from pests? The best seed treatment? Precision seeding equipment?

Well, there’s something more important than that: testing your seed.

About three years ago, Alberta Seed Processors (ASP) began a program called Seed Smart to promote and educate about the importance of seed health and testing your seed. Since then, the goal has remained the same: to get the word out that seed testing is “smart.”

“Seed Smart has only had about three seasons,” says Monica Klaas, general manager of ASP. “The program hasn’t changed much and the Co-op seed and grain processing network throughout Alberta/ BC Peace region have been the catalysts of the program to date. As our program gains momentum, we’re making plans to involve other parts of the crop sector value chain.”

But why should growers care so much about their seed health? Why should they get their seed tested?

“Everything a farmer does on the farm is to unlock the potential of the seed,” Klaas says. “The message of the Seed Smart program is for farmers to know the quality parameters of the seed they plant. If a farmer is using pedigreed seed, asking for the seed analysis from the seed retailer will assist that grower in planning for success. If a grower is using farm saved seed, getting a full seed test from an accredited laboratory will determine seed health parameters.”

Seed Smart recommends testing for germination and Fusarium gramineareum, as a bare minimum. Other tests such as fungal scans, vigour testing, and 1000 Kernel weight are other parameters that are critical indicators of seed health

Klaas says that particularly in this season, growers will want to make seed testing their first priority, as challenging harvest conditions will play a role in seed health.

Submitting a representative sample to the seed lab is of ultimate importance. With a later than normal harvest, farmers are reminded to take a sample from each truck load. Seed Smart has developed a sampling document to help guide farmers to use proper sampling techniques. The idea is to get a snapshot of seed quality of the whole seed lot, (not just what a farmer can access from a bin door).

Seed Smart’s next focus is marketing towards trade shows. Klaas says that they’ve been working on materials that will be available at more trade shows, and that they’re amping up more materials to be put in seed processing facilities.

In addition to Seed Smart marketing materials, there are now Seed Smart scholarships . Currently, Seed Smart awards two scholarships to encourage the next generation of growers to know the quality of the seed they’re planting.

The scholarship targets second to fourth year students enrolled in an agriculture-related field at universities across Canada, with given preference to students at an institution in Alberta. This year, Seed Smart awarded scholarships to Cole Huppertz, a 20-year-old from Westlock, Alberta, studying at Lakeland college, and Kyle Wheeler, a 20-year-old from Strathmore, Alberta, and a student at the University of Alberta.

“One of the things we recognize is that if a grower has been farming for 60 years or so and has never tested their seed, chances are that’s not the demographic that wants to send in seed samples,” Klaas says. “We know that we need to start working and encouraging the next generation to be cognizant about seed health and make it their first step.”

Currently, Seed Smart is staying focused on Alberta, but Klaas hopes that some of their marketing materials can be amended to other locations.

“The message is the same no matter where you farm,” Klaas says.

“We talk a lot in agriculture about sustainability and integrated pest management,” Klaas says. “Arguably, having a seed analysis fits into both platforms — you’re trying to predict an outcome. It’s difficult to try and predict something if you don’t know where you’re starting. Seed analysis often gets lost around the other parameters of crop production, but the Seed Smart program believes it should be the starting point.”

Where on the Web:

Visit the Alberta Seed Processors website www.seedprocessors.ca/seed-smart for resources and tools to help you be Seed Smart.

 

Clubbing Clubroot: An Update On Breeding Clubroot-Resistant Canola

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While Bayer CropScience undertakes much canola breeding research, such as in the greenhouse pictured, clubroot resistance research is conducted in a highly-secure lab to prevent the spread of the pathogen. (Photo: Bayer CropScience)

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 operationsat 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 in2013 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

DowDupontwasthe 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. Pioneer has new canola hybrids 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.”

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.”