Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
July 25, 2022
Innovative research helps improve wheat crops’ resilience, yield, and nutrient value
When it’s summertime in Alberta, the blue prairie skies are contrasted by rolling fields of yellow. Abundant stretches of golden wheat fields and flowering canola crops are not only a symbol of Canada’s prairies, but substantial contributors to the Canadian economy.
The Canadian grain industry generated a record $32.2 billion in farm cash receipts in 2021, with export values also setting a record at more than $24.5 billion.
However, extreme weather is another, far less pleasant hallmark of Canada’s prairies. While many crops grow particularly well on the prairies, with the cool nights and hot days, the plants are also vulnerable to fluctuating temperatures, hailstorms, and drought.
Dr. Marcus Samuel, PhD, a researcher in the Faculty of Science, has been working on improving agricultural crop resilience for over a decade. He and his team recently received funding from the Government of Saskatchewan (Agriculture Development Fund) which includes support from Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) and Alberta Wheat and Barley Commission, to investigate new, non-GMO ways to protect some of our province’s and country’s most valuable crops.
He and a large group of collaborators from across the prairies will work with a variety of government and industry partners from across Canada to develop drought-resistant wheat seeds.
Novel technique uses plants’ own genes to improve resilience
Samuel’s research focuses on fundamental science and uses cutting-edge gene editing tools to create better seeds and plants. He says:
We wanted to figure out non-GM methodology to improve yield. Particularly with climate change and rising temperatures, water scarcity is a concern when it comes to plants.
Gene editing methods change the existing genetic material of an organism in ways that can be advantageous to it. This is different from GMOs, which introduce new configurations of genetic material that can be from the same or different organism.
When it comes to his team’s work on developing resilient wheat varieties, Samuel says he is finding out more about the genes responsible for drought tolerance through molecular approaches, an area in which he has been making great strides throughout the past several years. This newest work creating more resilient wheat varieties all started with the model organism, a tiny weed called Arabidopsis.
“When we manipulated certain genes involved in hormonal pathways, we were able to tweak their drought responses differently,” Samuel explains.
“We developed a proprietary technology to screen mutated seeds that allowed us to rapidly screen over 100,000 mutated lines of wheat to assess for drought tolerance.”
Using this technology on a line that hadn’t seen any major improvement in yield in the last three decades, Samuel observed better drought tolerance, and close to 50 per cent better yield compared to the parent in the modified lines under water limiting conditions.
Continued funding from Genome Alberta and partnership with Dr. Raju Soolanayakanahally of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Dr. Sateesh Kagale of the National Research Council of Canada, allowed the research to move to the next stage, with the planting of six of the mutated wheat lines, all of which showed considerable improvements in drought tolerance.
“We tested them in field for two seasons, and they really stood up in the field,” says Samuel. “This action actually allowed us to take it further and actually make plans to bring it to the farmers and producers.”
The goal of this project is to now find the causal genes for the drought tolerance and find out what genes have been mutated. Once those are discovered, Samuel says, they can move this trait by crossing and breeding with elite Canadian wheat strains.
“In five years, we could have improved, drought-tolerant wheat lines — that farmers can actually use.”
The test sites for growing the new wheat strains will be located in Lethbridge, Saskatoon, and Brandon.
New technology helps add more protein to crop-grown foods like wheat, rice
Improving crop yield to feed more people and livestock is a goal that Samuel and his former PhD student Dr. Logan Skori, PhD’21, are taking to market with the founding of agriculture biotechnology company AgGene.
AgGene, for which Skori is the CEO and Samuel is the chief scientific officer, or CSO, focuses on the development of plant traits to address crop production challenges. Their flagship GAP protein technology improves protein content in plant tissues, particularly seeds, a major step toward producing high-protein yields.
Adding higher protein content to seeds is particularly important in developing countries, where diet primarily consists of rice, wheat, or legumes.
“At AgGene, we’re using the same model organism as we did for the wheat project to find a genetic network that's responsible for putting more protein into seeds,” Samuel explains.
Samuel and Skori, who started developing the technology when he was a Life Sciences Innovation Fellow at UCalgary, found an important gene in canola that, when added to a seed, increased the seed’s protein content by 10 to 20 per cent. AgGene is now focusing on eliminating two negative regulators that suppress this gene of interest.
With plant-based food and proteins becoming increasingly important, Samuel says the discovery could have incredible applications both for improving nutrition across the world and on the commercial plant protein industry.
“Firstly, if we can deliver this technology to developing countries, where they incorporate it in rice or wheat, they can benefit greatly at a far more affordable cost. Secondly, investors or producers in Canada can add more protein to their crops. So, as people move toward eating more plant-based protein sources, we have a technology to help. We want to standardize this technology for soybean, peas and canola,” Samuel says.
“I’m really excited to get working on this project. The wheat project has global implications because most of the world consumes wheat. But this one is very applied, very futuristic.”
AgGene has filed a patent, and is already in conversations with various industries in North America and government organizations in India regarding the technology.
Funding for these projects came courtesy of Genome Alberta; Alberta Innovates; Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture; Results Driven Agriculture Research, Alberta; Alberta Wheat and Barley Commission; Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission; Manitoba Crop Alliance.