Genetics/Traits
Benson Hill Biosystems, an agricultural technology company unlocking the genetic potential of plants through cloud biology, has announced a partnership with the University of Guelph to develop traits that increase canola yield as part of the Genome Canada Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP). The GAPP, along with provincial co-funding from the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science, will provide $2 million towards the $3.4 million project.

The GAPP funds research and development projects that address industry opportunities in order to accelerate the application of genomics-derived solutions and sustainable innovations that are beneficial to Canadians. Canola is a major driver of the Canadian economy representing $7.4 billion in farm cash receipts and over $9 billion in exports, primarily to China, Japan, Mexico and the United States. Canola also serves a critical role in our global food system. Seeds are crushed into a cooking oil that is one of the lowest in saturated fats, making it a popular choice for food services seeking to lower trans fats in their products. The remaining canola meal provides a high protein livestock feed.

Benson Hill, using its proprietary CropOS cognitive computational platform, has identified a portfolio of trait candidates demonstrated to improve photosynthesis, one of the most complex systems in plants that is responsible for all agriculture production. In collaboration with the University of Guelph, researchers will validate these and other trait candidates in canola for further testing and development.

Benson Hill's platform combines vast datasets and biological knowledge with big data analytics and scalable cloud-based computing – an intersection of disciplines known as cloud biology – to predict biological outcomes for any target crop using any genomics tool, from breeding to gene editing to transgenics. The ability to more accurately predict gene targets that are linked to certain phenotypic outcomes with CropOS enables Benson Hill to accelerate identification of promising trait candidates, reducing product development costs and increasing speed to market.
Ag-West Bio, Saskatchewan’s bioscience industry association, has approved a $300,000 investment in Smart Earth Seeds, a vertically-integrated plant breeding company developing high-omega meal and oil products derived from its proprietary camelina genetics platform.

Camelina offers special promise as a sustainable source of the essential fatty acid ALA (an omega 3 fatty acid) as well as an ideally balanced Omega3:Omega6 ratio. It’s also rich in vitamin E and natural antioxidants.

Smart Earth Seeds has generated over $1 million from sales of its camelina products, including significant sales into the aquafeed industry. Smart Earth has sought and received approvals from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for use of rich-Omega3 camelina meal as feed for broiler chickens and egg-laying hens. CFIA has recently approved camelina oil for use as a feed ingredient for salmon and trout. Exciting breakthrough markets for camelina products also include the equine and pet food industry as well as for cattle and dairy production.

Smart Earth’s plant-breeding activities will provide traits that ensure maximum yield and profitability to benefit farmers. Soon-to-be released varieties will offer non-GMO herbicide resistance and a significantly larger seed size.
A coordinated effort to understand plant microbiomes could boost plant health and agricultural productivity, according to a new Perspective publishing March 28 in the open access journal PLOS Biology by Posy Busby of Oregon State University in Corvallis and colleagues at eight other research institutions. | READ MORE

Only three plant species -- rice, wheat, and maize -- account for most of the plant matter that humans consume, partly because of the mutations that made these crops the easiest to harvest. But with CRISPR technology, we don't have to wait for nature to help us domesticate plants, argue researchers.

A new analysis is raising questions about whether farmers in Canada and the United States have seen real benefits resulting from their widespread adoption of genetically modified crops. The Toronto Star reports. | READ MORE
A new, high-yield alfalfa variety developed in the Maritimes will go to market in February when Agriculture Agri-Food Canada puts the results of 28 years of research to tender. CBC News reports. | READ MORE
Researchers at Rice University in Houston are leading an effort to build tools that can detect, quantify and track the dispersal of genetically modified crops and animals, as well as their byproducts, in the environment.
Allen Good believes there’s a difference between the “gold standard” of field trials and the ways some producers run their operations.
An international research team has identified two genes which could help protect barley against powdery mildew attack.

Led by the University of Adelaide in Australia and the Leibniz-Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Germany, the research will give plant-breeders new targets for developing lines of barley with resistance to powdery mildew.

The two genes, HvGsl6 and HvCslD2, were shown to be associated with accumulation of callose and cellulose respectively. These two polysaccharides play an important role in blocking the penetration of the plant cell wall by the powdery mildew fungus.

Published in two separate papers in the journal New Phytologist, the researchers showed that by "silencing" these genes, there was lower accumulation of callose and cellulose in the plant cell walls, and higher susceptibility of barley plants to the fungus. Conversely, over-expressing HvCslD2 enhanced the resistance in barley.

"Powdery mildew is a significant disease of barley wherever it is grown around the world, and resistance to the fungicide most commonly used to control it has been recently observed," said Alan Little, a senior research scientist at the University of Adelaide, with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls in the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, in a press release.

"If we can develop barley with improved resistance to powdery mildew, it will help barley producers increase yields and maintain high quality."

In the plant and pathogen co-evolutionary battleground, host plants have evolved a wide range of defence strategies against attacking pathogens.

One of the earliest observed defence responses is the formation of cell-wall thickenings called papillae at the site of fungal infection. They physically block the fungus from penetrating the plant cells.

In barley, the papillae contain callose and cellulose as well as other polysaccharides, but the genes involved in accumulation of these carbohydrates in the cell wall have not been identified.

"Our results show that these novel genes are interesting targets for improving cell-wall penetration resistance in barley and maybe other cereals against fungal intruders," said Patrick Schweizer, head of the Pathogen-Stress Genomics Laboratory at IPK.

"Now we can use these genes to identify molecular markers for breeding enhanced resistance into modern barley."

The two papers can be read online here and here
According to new research from University of Virginia economist Federico Ciliberto, widespread adoption of genetically modified crops has decreased the use of insecticides, but increased the use of weed-killing herbicides as weeds become more resistant.

May 31, 2016 - A new generation of plants better adapted to mitigate the effects of environmental change could be created following a fundamental step towards understanding how plants are able to retain a memory of stress exposure.

The research, led by the University of Warwick and published in the journal eLife, provides the first compelling evidence that plants have evolved ways to remember previous exposures to stress, in this case high salinity conditions, which can help subsequent progenies withstand the same stress in future.

The international study, led by Dr Jose Gutierrez-Marcos from Warwick's School of Life Sciences, has revealed that this "stress memory" is programmed epigenetically by chemical modifications in the form of cytosine methylation to the DNA at specific locations of the plant genome.

"With the rising threat of climate change, there is a need to create future plant varieties that provide stronger yields and are able to grow in a wide range of challenging climates. By uncovering the mechanisms by which plants are able to remember previous exposures to stress and develop adaptive responses, we have opened up the possibility of breeding a new generation of plants to address these requirements."

The new research has found that in the absence of stress this memory is gradually reset especially when transmitted through the male lineage. In addition, the researchers found that stress memory can be fixed by mutations in genes responsible for resetting DNA methylation.

"Before our discovery, the extent of a stress memory in plants was unrecognized but we now have evidence for some of the molecular mechanisms implicated in this process. The next step is to manipulate plant memory and translate this knowledge to produce crops that are better adapted to environmental change"

Read the eLife paper.

 

Apr. 22, 2016 - Faced with a pathogen, important signaling chemicals within plant cells travel different routes to inform the plant to turn on its defense mechanisms, according to a recent University of Kentucky (UK) study.

Plant pathologists Aardra and Pradeep Kachroo study how plants fend off secondary infections, a defense mechanism known as systemic acquired resistance. In previous studies, the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment scientists identified several chemicals within plant cells that help trigger this resistance. Their most recent study, published in Cell Host and Microbe, looked at the paths three of those chemicals travel. Understanding these pathways and chemicals may shed light on new ways scientists can help plants fend off a wide range of pathogens.

"Animals have a circulatory system that makes it very easy for one part of the body to communicate with another," Aardra Kachroo said. "This is not the case for plants, which makes communication more difficult between various parts. That's why it's important for scientists to understand how that happens."

Their research found that two of the chemicals travel through the same opening between cells, called the plasmodesmata. They are helped through this "doorway" by proteins that also control the opening and closing of the "door."

The third signaling chemical, salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, travels a different route, going out of one cell into the plasma membrane and then into another cell.

"This is a similar route via which aspirin in taken up in the human body," Pradeep Kachroo said.

In plants, after moving to the neighboring cell, salicylic acid can also shut the door in between the cells that the other two chemicals traveled through.

"This knowledge is very relevant to how we use chemicals for protecting our crops in the field," Pradeep Kachroo said.

The Kachroos' results suggest that although current strategies of using chemicals that activate the salicylic acid pathway maybe an effective short-term strategy to manage specific diseases, it could potentially have long-term negative repercussions on the plant's inherent ability to induce broad-spectrum systemic immunity.

 

April 22, 2016 – The Corn Pest Coalition has released the 2016 Bt Traits and Refuge Requirements in Canada tables. The tables are available in English and French. | READ MORE

 

What if corn breeders had access to molecular markers for qualities like Gibberella ear rot resistance and kernel dry down rate? Researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Ottawa Research and Development Centre (ORDC) have begun to understand the molecular mechanisms influencing these traits, which means corn breeding is about to get smarter – and faster.

“We’re always trying to develop new inbreds of corn with resistance to Gibberella ear rot, so we have several lines developing in our pipeline over the next few years,” says Lana Reid, a research scientist with expertise in corn breeding and genetics.

“We’re the only public breeding program in Canada that releases public inbreds, and the demand has been increasing.”

ORDC’s previous releases include CO441 and CO449, which have the highest Gibberella resistance of any publically released maize lines in the world. This year, the centre is releasing the first lines they’ve ever developed with common rust resistance. Within the next several years, Reid says the ORDC will release between 10 and 20 lines with resistance to common maize diseases.

Reid has collaborated with French, Spanish and Chinese researchers in analyzing the biochemical mechanisms for resistance. “Why is something resistant? Why is it so resistant? These are people coming forward saying this is why,” Reid says.

But important discoveries are being made right at ORDC. Linda Harris, a research scientist in cereal/fungal genomics, is working with Reid on an industry-driven improved corn genetics project. Harris uses next-generation sequencing technology to map Gibberella ear rot resistance in maize.  

“A number of different sources of resistance have been identified in cereals, maize and wheat, but we don’t know the exact mechanism of resistance at the molecular level,” she says.

A few years ago, Harris crossed CO441, which has good silk and kernel resistance to ear rot, with B73, the susceptible United States inbred that is the source of the public maize genome sequence. Using a large hybrid ear resulting from that cross, Harris developed 410 separate lines from the seeds of the ear, where each line was descended from a single seed and has a different homozygous mosaic background – or a different mix of the parents’ genetics.

“We screened those 410 lines for silk and kernel resistance over several seasons, used the low-cost genotyping by sequencing method to obtain over 1000 molecular markers across the genomes, and then we looked to see which regions of the genome were responsible for resistance,” Harris says.

The project, which is funded by Growing Forward 2 and the Canadian Field Crop Research Alliance, which includes the Manitoba Corn Growers Association, began in April 2013 and will continue to March 2018.

So far, their findings have been promising.

Mapping resistance
Aida Kebede, a post-doctoral fellow at ORDC, is looking for regions of the genome responsible for resistance. She identified 10 genomic locations providing Gibberella resistance, of which four were common between silk and kernel modes of entry. And she also found some genotypic correlations between disease severity and agronomic traits – meaning that agronomic traits have a role to play in disease resistance.

In other words, Gibberella ear rot resistance and agronomic traits like kernel dry down are interlinked.

To analyze the expression of these traits in maize, Kebede conducted a field experiment for two years before extracting RNA samples. Now, Kebede is using RNA sequencing to try to get to the heart of the relationship between disease resistance and agronomic traits.

“At the moment I’m working on gene expression data analysis for identifying candidate genes for Gibberella resistance using RNA sequencing,” says Kebede.

“Because we have already seen there is a relationship between Gibberella resistance and kernel dry down rate, we want to use one trait as an indirect selection criteria for the other trait,” she says. “Kernel dry down rate is much easier to measure, so we try to indirectly select for Gibberella resistance by selecting for maize lines with fast kernel drydown rate.”

Kebede says breeding for Gibberella ear rot resistance is intense, requiring a great deal of resources and human labour. If kernel dry down rate can be used as an indirect selection for Gibberella resistance, the breeding process will be streamlined by reducing the cost for independent disease screening experiments.

Harris says the project is still at the validation stage, but the team hopes their work will soon result in molecular markers that Reid can incorporate into her breeding program. “It’s very labour intensive to screen for resistance. If we can pre-screen for certain markers that would be much easier,” Harris says.

Kebede is hopeful that the program will result in a more efficient breeding process. “Finding the chromosomal regions and the candidate genes will speed up the breeding process, so that transferring resistance genes to hybrid corn will be much easier. That is the achievement. And farmers will get resistant hybrids much faster than before,” she says.

 

Jan. 11, 2016, Saskatoon, SK - Winter wheat in Western Canada is receiving a huge boost as a crop with the recent addition of partner, The Mosaic Company Foundation, the newest member of the Western Winter Wheat Initiative (WWWI). The Mosaic Company Foundation is now helping to fund the WWWI with an investment of $1 million over the next three years.

"We are fortunate to have such great industry support for winter wheat as a crop here on the Prairies," says Paul Thoroughgood, with the WWWI. "Now that The Mosaic Company Foundation is on board, we are able to continue supporting the growth of winter wheat across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and have professional agronomists available to help farmers improve their bottom lines."

An excellent fit in crop rotations, winter wheat complements all the WWWI partners' visions for a sustainable agricultural landscape. Not only is winter wheat one of, if not the most, high-yielding and profitable crops grown on the Prairies, it also has a more efficient use of crop inputs, uses reduced tillage, and provides wildlife habitat, making it one of the most environmentally and conservation-friendly crops around.

"As global demand for food increases, farmers are working to sustainably intensify the amount of food they grow while enhancing environmental protection. Winter wheat is a great example of this in action," says Mark Kaplan, Board President of The Mosaic Company Foundation and Senior Vice President of Public Affairs at The Mosaic Company. "We are pleased to support the Western Winter Wheat Initiative as it helps farmers optimize yields and improves nutrient stewardship and water quality outcomes."

The WWWI is a strong advocate for responsible farm management practices and the 4R's for Nutrient Stewardship and recognizes The Mosaic Company Foundation as the perfect addition to its efforts.

Promoting winter wheat as a great sustainable crop option for farmers in Prairie Canada, the WWWI offers expert agronomic support and funds breeding and agronomy research programs thanks to like-minded industry partners Bayer CropScience, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Richardson International Limited, and now, The Mosaic Company Foundation.

 

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