Corn breeding at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
By Treena Hein
Dr. Lana Reid, the only corn breeder at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), is hooked on corn. Based at the Eastern Cereals and Oilseed Research Centre in Ottawa, she says “Once you start working on corn, it’s difficult to work on anything else.”
With a military father, Reid grew up in various locations across Canada, but the majority of her life has been spent in the Ottawa Valley, and she now lives on a small hobby farm near Almonte. Her fascination with corn began during a plant biochemistry undergraduate course at the University of Ottawa. “I was learning about how plants defend themselves against pests,” she remembers, “and I was so interested that I went to talk to my professors about doing a fourth year honours project.”
They helped her organize a project on resistance to the European corn borer, which brought Reid to the Central Experimental Farm (CEF) in Ottawa to meet Dr. Robert Hamilton, the AAFC corn breeder whom she would eventually come to replace. “The project rapidly evolved into a masters thesis for me,” she recalls. With the assistance of a grant from Pioneer Hi-Bred, Reid later relocated to Macdonald College of McGill University and started a PhD with Dr. Diane Mather. The campus was only 90 minutes’ drive away from the CEF, which allowed her to stay in close contact with the scientists and travel there for summer field research. “My PhD thesis focused on the role of silk in resistance to gibberella ear rot caused by Fusarium graminearum,” Reid notes. “Six months before I finished my thesis, I was hired by AAFC to continue this research and expand the ear rot breeding program. Pioneer Hi-Bred, the Ontario Corn Producers Association and Ontario Pork all contributed to funding of this research, getting me off to a fantastic start. I was eventually offered the position of corn breeder and eagerly accepted it.”
Many pressures bear down on today’s corn crop, notes Reid. “Historically, corn cropping was concentrated in regions in Canada with the highest available heat units and adequate moisture supply, but there is a need to expand the production of corn into areas with much less heat,” she says. “In addition, despite the high demand for corn for so many things, many producers find it difficult to make a substantial profit.”
Although corn yields have increased substantially since the late 1970s, they did so during a time when energy inputs like fertilizer, pesticide and drying costs were relatively inexpensive. Reid notes that an increase in the number and severity of diseases has occurred in the meantime. There is therefore constant pressure to improve traits relating to higher yield and better disease resistance, among other attributes.
Since corn breeding began at AAFC in 1927, many new genotypes have been produced that have helped expand corn production in eastern Ontario and Quebec. “AAFC is recognized as an international leader in the development of corn with value-added traits,” Reid notes. “Demand for AAFC inbreds increases every year.”
The goals of AAFC’s corn program are ambitious, encompassing continued investigation and incorporation of many traits.
For example, developing corn with improved drydown traits is important, she says, because most Canadian corn producers must harvest their corn at 25 to 28 percent moisture, compared to US producers who harvest at or below 20 percent. “Hybrids with faster drydown rates will allow producers to reduce drying costs and/or grow longer-season hybrids that may have a greater yield potential,” she says. “In this area of research, we’re completing the standardization of a hand-held moisture meter for non-destructive kernel moisture measurement and collecting genotypes from international sources with rapid drydown traits.”
Early maturity and cold tolerance at the seedling stage are also important breeding foci. To develop new elite corn inbreds and populations with these traits, Reid is obtaining public corn germplasm from international sources and integrating suitable genotypes into the AAFC breeding program. “Before release, we test inbreds for combining ability as a hybrid in multiple location yield trials,” Reid notes. “We’re also doing collaborative studies on the inheritance of specific traits in order to determine breeding strategies, and maintaining the AAFC corn inbred seed bank.”
The program also involves collecting and adapting new genetic sources to improve resistance to diseases such as gibberella ear rot, fusarium stalk rot, eyespot, common rust, northern leaf blight, grey leaf spot and common smut. “We’re refining our disease-screening techniques and making sure to test extensively to ensure that hybrids have both resistance and yield performance,” says Reid.
Annual disease surveys are conducted in collaboration with provincial researchers. As if that were not enough, Reid is investigating the potential of developing new traits for the biofuel industry, drought resistance and reduced plant height/high harvest index.
All in a day
There is no “typical day” for Reid. “My daily schedule changes with the seasons,” she says. “From May to October, I spend some, if not all, of the day outdoors, and at peak times, my staff and I work seven days a week.” Reid cannot ever take a summer holiday, as she must pollinate experimental stands on a daily basis from early July until the end of August. From November to April, she spends a lot of time on the computer analyzing data and writing papers. “During that period, I also attend meetings and conferences and prepare for the next year’s planting,” she notes. “We also have a winter nursery in New Zealand that must be organized and shipped at the same time that we are harvesting our nurseries in the fall.”
Reid says the most satisfying aspect of her research so far has involved the development of some of the most resistant public inbred lines of corn for Fusarium graminearum, the same pathogen that causes Fusarium head blight in wheat. These inbreds were developed using conventional breeding techniques over a 10-year period. “We knew we’d developed excellent resistance, but didn’t know what the mechanism of the resistance was,” she recalls. “We had a PhD student from France, Antoine Bily, who worked with us and with Dr. John Arnason from the University of Ottawa, and in a very short time, he discovered which plant biochemicals appeared to be playing a role in this resistance and thus what we had been indirectly selecting for all this time.”
“It’s very gratifying as a breeder to develop something with so much potential,” Reid adds. “These inbreds have gone on to be used by many researchers around the world.”