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Guelph professor heading soybean research effort

May 2, 2014, Guelph, Ont. – A University of Guelph scientist using genetics to improve Ontario’s most valuable crop has received nearly $2 million in government and industry support.

Professor Istvan Rajcan, department of plant agriculture, was recently awarded a Collaborative Research and Development Grant by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Matched by funding from Grain Farmers of Ontario, SeCan Association and Huron Commodities Inc., the grant is worth a total of more than $500,000.

Earlier, Rajcan received $1.4 million from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the Canadian Field Crop Research Alliance (CFCRA). That funding was part of a $10.3-million Canadian Field Crop Genetics Improvement Cluster funded by CFCRA and AAFC through the Growing Forward 2 AgriInnovation Program.

Rajcan uses state-of-the-art technology to pinpoint genetic markers for producing improved soybean varieties.

Ultimately, his work will allow breeders and growers to select varieties with specific traits from high yields to high protein content to disease resistance, including varieties that may help to prevent cancer and other ailments.

“We are intent on helping farmers in Canada get access to high-performing soybean varieties, and taking a scientific approach to doing that,” Rajcan says. “We aim to use the latest technology to help develop innovative soybean varieties that meet the needs of various producers and industries, both domestically and internationally."

He and his 15-member research team – including U of G research associate Chris Grainger, PhD candidate Robert Bruce, Milad Eskandari, a professor from the Ridgetown Campus, and François Belzile, a professor from Université Laval – are seeking to develop genetic markers for various traits such as increased yields and enhanced nutritional qualities.

Increased yields and disease resistance will help in making food products such as tofu, nattō and miso, and developing varieties with value-added nutritional traits is an important objective for Canadian soybean growers, Rajcan said.

For example, Japanese food producers want soybeans with more sugar. Demand is growing for varieties with more isoflavones -- linked to reduced risk of cancer, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease – and saponins with anti-cancer properties. Industry is seeking oil-rich varieties for edible oils and for bioproducts used to make biodiesel and car parts.

Besides looking for genetic markers, the team uses advanced genomic technologies to study how breeding has changed the soybean genome.

“We’ll be studying the changes in genetic diversity over generations of breeding activity,” Rajcan said. “We’re looking at what happened to DNA as a result of intervention of plant breeders, what changed and the implications of those changes.”

Genetic diversity is essential for such traits as higher yields and nutraceuticals, he added.

Together with his team, Rajcan has developed more than 50 soybean varieties. These include “OAC Kent,” created with retired technician Wade Montminty, which was the 2008 “Seed of the Year” winner, and “OAC Wallace,” which has been the No. 1 variety for yield in its category in Ontario for 13 years.