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The future of managing flax fibre

A non-GMO flax variety with reduced stem fibre content is coming down the pipeline

By weight, flax fibres are stronger than steel.

Dealing with flax straw residue has long been a source of headaches for many Prairie flax producers. “While many producers continue to burn it — costing them valuable organic matter, money, and time — producers would prefer to see their flax straw left on the field,” says Wayne Thompson, executive director of the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission (SaskFlax).

To respond to this concern, SaskFlax is funding a new research project that may offer an unexpected solution. The project has researchers from the University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia working together to develop a non-GMO flax variety with reduced stem fibre content. This is important because high stem fibre is a key factor in making flax residue difficult to manage.

Back in 2007, Dr. Michael Deyholos, a UBC researcher, published research that identified an enzyme, beta-galactosidase (B-Gal), that is critical to the development of flax fibre — a material that is stronger than steel by weight. “The reason flax fibres get their strength is that the cellulose is arranged in really straight parallel molecules allowing them to crystalize,” says Deyholos. The B-Gal enzyme is important because it removes spacers that prevent the crystals from forming. Deyholos’ later research found that when the activation of the enzyme is controlled, those spacers are left in place and the cellulose doesn’t crystallize.

However, the researchers face challenges as they take this knowledge from the lab to the field. In a previous research project, Deyholos developed a flax plant that completely lacked bast (stem) fibres; while the line performed well in the laboratory, in field tests, the plants lacked the strength to hold themselves up and were soon flat and tangled.

“The big complication to developing a flax variety with reduced stem strength is that flax evolved bast fibres, which are not present in crop plants like wheat,” says Dr. Helen Booker, flax breeder for the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre. Booker points to research that indicates that many North American flax varieties have stem fibre contents that are only marginally lower (2.1 per cent) than European varieties used in the fibre industry. This is a good trait for folks interested in developing a dual-purpose flax and growing a flax fibre industry in Western Canada, but does nothing to help producers deal with their annual flax straw headache.

In this cross-section of a flax stem, the bast fibres are highlighted in magenta.
In this cross-section of a flax stem, the bast fibres are highlighted in magenta. photo: Michael Deyholos, UBC 

But Deyholos is optimistic that his current research can lead to a new variety that will allow producers to leave their straw in the field. “We already know we can weaken the fibres slightly, and we have also shown that we can completely eliminate the fibres, so we just need to find the sweet spot between those extremes.” His team is now back in the lab conducting mutation breeding experiments that will identify non-GMO plants that don’t display the high stem fibre trait. Once they have identified a few lines in the lab, they will send them to Dr. Booker and her team for further data and analysis.

In the meantime, producers’ flax straw issues aren’t going away anytime soon. Even if the team is successful it could be as long 10 to 15 years before farmers are able to harvest a low stem fibre flax. Until then, flax producers should keep that Aspirin close at hand.

New flax for 2017

There is a new flax variety on the market for 2017. CPS/Proven Seed’s WestLin 72 is a traditional brown-seeded flax variety available at Crop Production Services retails.

WestLin 72 has a yield of 102 per cent of CDC Bethune. It offers good disease resistance, a strong oil profile and reduced plant height for straw management.

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