Future foods today
Young scientists are telling their stories.
November 20, 2007 By Top Crop Manager
With less than 250,000 census farmers in Canada, it is a perennial challenge
to communicate about modern farming practices to a mostly urban population of
31 million. The science of biotech seeds has been one such practice quickly
adopted by farmers but questioned by urban cousins.
|Aaron Beattie focusses on net blotch in barley.
Five years ago, plant biotech companies recognized the need to communicate
to consumers, funding the Council for Biotechnology Information with the express
mandate to share science-based information with opinion leaders. In 2006, a
Canadian board of directors continues to support this mission through media
relations, third-party networks and a web site at www.whybiotech.ca The board
consists of BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and
Syngenta with additional representatives from CropLife Canada and BioteCanada.
To demystify research in the pipeline, the Young Scientist Footsteps Award
program was created to recognize outstanding Master's or PhD biotech researchers.
Candidates undergo third-party evaluation by Genome Prairie. Three winners were
honoured with $5000 cheques in 2005, spanning the gamut of biotech research
and universities in Canada. These awards have proven time and again to garner
media coverage, precisely because the newsmakers are 'local' and bring pride
to the city's university.
Sanjeeva Srivastava made the University of Alberta proud with his work on canola.
He observed specific proteins that appeared to protect pea plants from withering
under saline conditions and then transferred the 'saline-proofing' genes to
canola. While salinity is not a major problem in Canada, it is in his native
homeland of India. Srivastava's story is a classic tale of how Canadian research
may help the biotech revolution in developing countries where adoption is growing
in double digits every year and, at the same time, is fortifying domestic research
in related crop stresses such as drought and frost.
His story was reported in the community Vancouver-based Indian Press
and in the business pages of the Edmonton Journal under the headline:
'Gene makes canola plant salt-resistant'. Along with a photo in the greenhouse,
the story demystifies the genetic engineering that is making Canadian crops
hardier and more productive. These kinds of stories are important in provincial
capitals where legislators and key influencers make decisions on research funding
and small business incubators.
A similar story played out in the Regina Leader-Post when Aaron Beattie
was awarded for his University of Saskatchewan work on disease resistant barley.
Beattie's story is of a Regina-born student who enjoyed a prestigious position
in a human genetics laboratory at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, then
through a series of moves, found his true calling in plant biotechnology in
New Zealand. Rather than a brain drain from Saskatchewan, he represents a homegrown
son who has returned to the crucible of genetic research in Saskatoon.
His focus is net blotch in barley. Like canola and wheat, barley is susceptible
to leaf diseases and in this case, net blotch which ultimately affects seed
quality. Using the molecular mapping tools of biotechnology, Beattie is trying
to identify durable resistance genes to this disease in barley.
"Resistance genes are part of a plant's immune system that help to recognize
and eventually destroy pathogenic organisms," says Beattie. "To avoid
the plant's defense system, pathogens are constantly changing the cues plants
use to recognize them, similar to the way flu viruses change from year to year."
Plant breeders have developed a gene-for-gene hypothesis that states disease
is conditioned by pairs of genes: one from the plant and one from the pathogen.
To use a chess term, Beattie has a checkmate strategy. While there is much
research devoted to understanding disease resistance in barley, little is known
about the genetic makeup of the net blotch pathogen. He is using molecular markers
to identify pathogen genes that are most important for survival, and thus less
likely to change. With that knowledge, barley genes targetted against such important
pathogen genes would be expected to be more durable. If Beattie's approach is
successful, the new barley variety would help producers in growing a more profitable
crop which would not necessitate the use of fungicides. Additionally, this strategy
could be applied to other crops and diseases.
Farther east at the University of Guelph, Young Scientist Footsteps Award winner
Heinrich Wohleser represents another perspective on Canadian biotech research.
The anti-GM sentiments in Europe prevented any substantive career in biotech
research, so he came to Canada for a brighter future. In just two years, he
is developing soybeans with enhanced levels of tocopherol, the precursor to
vitamin E. "It's quite feasible that within the next 10 years, we will
have commercialized soybean lines high in vitamin E," explains Wohleser.
The crop science team uses molecular markers to sort through thousands of genes
to identify those controlling soybean tocopherol levels. Soybeans are an ideal
focus for this research because they produce the only vegetable oil to contain
all four types of tocopherols – alpha, beta, delta and gamma – all
of which have varying antioxidant properties. Soybean oil is especially high
in alpha and gamma tocopherol, which confer the most powerful antioxidant properties
of vitamin E.
The biotech industry anticipates that once crops like vitamin E enhanced soybeans
reach the market, consumer resistance may dissipate. Until now, biotech crops
have had agronomic benefits for farmers, but the next decade of products are
more likely to have tangible benefits for consumers. The goal is to keep communicating
about future foods long before they are commercialized. -30-