WGRF Invests $5 Million into Plant Genomics Research

Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) today announced a $5 million dollar investment into three applied genomics research projects in lentil, wheat and soybean. These projects were selected for funding under Genome Canada’s 2014 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition Genomics and Feeding the Future.

“WGRF is excited about the impact these projects will have for producers,” said Dave Sefton, WGRF Board Chair. “Support of genomics for crop research is important for the development of improved crop varieties. WGRF’s partnership with Genome Canada and involvement in their rigorous review process has allowed producers to invest in these world class genomics research projects. I would like to thank the Government of Canada and Genome Canada for their partnership and support of agriculture crop research.”

“Genome Canada is delighted that WGRF came in as a front-end programmatic partner for this important funding competition. Clearly, they recognize the considerable untapped potential that genomics has to offer in terms of enhancing crops that are staples of this nation’s economy as well as those that are emerging in importance for producers and consumers.” Lorne Hepworth, Chair of Genome Canada.

At $18 million of funding planned for 2015, WGRF is the largest producer funder of crop research in Canada. “WGRF’s annual research funding has tripled in last five years,” said Garth Patterson, WGRF Executive Director. “This $5 million dollar investment by producers into cutting-edge plant genomics research is a good partnership for WGRF. The WGRF Endowment Fund is used to fund crop research projects that benefit all producers and the projects announced today will help enhance the profitability and sustainability of producers in western Canada.”

Funded Projects Backgrounder

Application of Genomics to Innovation in The Lentil Economy (AGILE)

Project leaders: Kirstin Bett and Bert Vandenberg, University of Saskatchewan

Lentils may be tiny, but they are an outsized source of opportunity for Canadian farmers. Canada is the world’s largest producer and exporter of lentils, exporting more than $14 billion worth of lentils since 1997. Lentils are eaten around the world, easy-to-cook, and high in protein and micronutrients, thus contributing to global food security.

Lentils have been a success for Canada, because farmers have access to high-quality and high-yielding lentil varieties that are well-adapted to Canada’s climate conditions – a result of a dedicated lentil breeding program in Canada.  Breeders, however, have only been able to access a small fraction of the total diversity in existence, which hinders Canadian farmers’ ability to meet the growing global demand.

The goal of AGILE is to provide Canadian farmers with faster access to better lentil varieties that will excel under Canadian growing conditions. The AGILE team will characterize the genetic variability found in an expansive collection of lentils to determine the genetics underlying the ability for lentils to grow well in different global environments. The team, led by Drs. Kirstin Bett and Albert Vandenberg of the University of Saskatchewan, will then develop breeder-friendly genetic markers that can be used to reduce the impact of genes that cause poor adaptation to Canadian conditions while retaining advantageous genes from these strains. The team will also investigate the factors that influence farmer’s decisions to adopt lentil or not in their crop rotation, and develop a strategy to increase Canadian lentil production in a sustainable way.

Output from AGILE is expected to result in a three per cent annual rate of increase in productivity, leading to a $550 million increase in export revenues, thus ensuring Canada’s continued dominance in research, production and marketing of this important crop. 

Canadian Triticum Applied Genomics (CTAG2)

Project leaders: Curtis Pozniak, University of Saskatchewan; Andrew Sharpe, National Research Council Canada

Wheat accounts for a staggering 20 per cent of all calories consumed throughout the world. As global population grows, so too does its dependence on wheat. To meet future demands, productivity for wheat needs to increase by 1.6 per cent each year – at the same time as climate change is causing temperature and precipitation changes that challenge established patterns. There is, in addition, a need to ensure that productivity increases are achieved sustainably to ensure the long-term stability of the wheat-growing industry.

In Canada, wheat accounts for more than $4.5 billion in annual sales and, when value-added processing is factored in, adds more than $11 billion each year to the Canadian economy. Dr. Curtis Pozniak of the University of Saskatchewan is leading the CTAG2 team, with scientists participating from four Canadian research institutions:  The National Research Council of Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, University of Guelph, and the University of Regina.  The emphasis of CTAG2 is to conduct research to better understand the wheat genome and to apply this research to develop genetic markers and predictive genetic tests to improve selection efficiency in Canadian wheat breeding programs. The CTAG2 team will work with the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium to generate a high quality reference of chromosome 2B of wheat and drive innovation in wheat breeding by developing genomic strategies to improve utilization of untapped genetic variation from related species.  The end result will be the development of tools and strategies for wheat breeders to develop improved cultivars that are more productive and resistant to disease and pests, and resilient to heat and drought stresses. These cultivars will enable wheat farmers to ensure that their product is more productive, profitable and environmentally sustainable. 

The project is part of an international collaboration to sequence the entire wheat genome and to characterize genetic variation influencing critical traits targeted by wheat breeders in Canada. 

SoyaGen: Improving Yield and Disease Resistance in Short-season Soybean

Project leaders: François Belzile, Université Laval; Richard Bélanger, Université Laval

Soybean is a promising crop for Canadian farmers, already the third-most important field crop in Canada and generating more than $2.5 billion annually. Its seeds are a valuable source of protein and oil for both human and animal consumption. It does not need chemical fertilizer to provide it with nitrogen as it naturally extracts it from the air with the help of bacteria in the soil, making it environmentally friendly. However, there are challenges involved in developing high-yielding soybean varieties suited to Canadian conditions: First, they need to reach maturity quickly, within the short Canadian summer; second, they need to be made more resistant to pests and diseases, to prevent losses in yield or require the use of pesticides; and third, because it is a novel crop in many regions of Canada, there are impediments to its adoption by farmers that need to be addressed.

Dr. François Belzile and Dr. Richard Bélanger of Université Laval, are leading a team that will probe deeply into the genetic code of soybeans to identify DNA markers that control key aspects of plant growth such as time to maturity and resistance to diseases and pests. Breeders will be able to use these markers to develop improved soybean varieties best suited to Canadian conditions. The team will also breed soybean varieties resistant to certain prevailing pests and diseases. As well, they will conduct research focused on maximizing the growth potential of the soybean industry in Canada to accelerate producer adoption of soybeans in western Canada. Economic benefits of this research have the potential to reach $278 million annually, based on increasing the yield potential of soybean crops, increasing their resistance against diseases and pests and reducing the use of pesticides.