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Training the next generation of plant breeders

U of M students get hands-on experience developing herbicide-tolerant rapeseed hybrids

According to Rob Duncan, professor in the Department of Plant Science at the University of Manitoba, the university is ahead of the curve in terms of canola/rapeseed breeding in Canada.

“Most public breeding programs don’t necessarily release cultivars anymore,” he says. “They’ll do germplasm development or work on trait development, but to work on breeding projects that result in a commercially grown cultivar is quite rare in Canada.”

Duncan is head of a $3.7 million canola/rapeseed cultivar development project that has already seen the commercial release of two hybrids through industry partners. The first variety released through the program, HYHEAR 1, is the world’s first Genuity herbicide-tolerant rapeseed hybrid.

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“We’re in the process of registering a significantly improved cultivar and there are others up and coming,” says Duncan.

The project’s main goals are to develop cultivars with improved characteristics such as high yields and high meal protein and oil content, and to train students in a commercially viable breeding environment.

The project’s funding comes chiefly from a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) grant, which matches funding with industry partners DL Seeds and Bunge Canada. The grant, which runs until 2018, is the third-largest overall and the largest CRD ever awarded in biological sciences and agriculture in Canada.

The main part of the CRD is focused on the university’s High Erucic Acid Rapeseed (HEAR) program, which aims to produce HEAR cultivars with increased levels of erucic acid in the oil portion of the seed.

Duncan’s research partners on the CRD grant are University of Manitoba plant science professors Dilantha Fernando and Genyi Li. “We’re focusing on improving the hybrids and capitalizing on heterosis,” says Duncan. “Before 2013, everything that was released from the HEAR program was an open-pollinated population, so we’re trying to capitalize on the benefits of hybrids — yield, quality and disease resistance.”

Students are hands on

But what’s perhaps most remarkable about the program is the opportunity it provides graduate students to gain hands-on research and industry level experience developing cultivars for commercial release.

“Students conduct research on a scientific project that they can publish. It has to be innovative and novel research. So they work on basic science that may not directly translate into an immediate impact for the farmer today,” he says. “But at the same time, they gain experience in our commercial breeding program’s technical group. It’s almost like they’re doing an internship with a small company.

“It’s a really wonderful opportunity for students coming in because they get that exposure and are better prepared to work in the industry.”

Corey Lees, a graduate of Duncan’s canola/rapeseed breeding program who now works as a breeder-in-training for DL Seeds, says the program offered invaluable hands-on industry experience.

Lees’ research work focused on heterotic gene pool development. “When you want to make a hybrid cultivar, some of the best hybrid cultivars are from genetically diverse backgrounds,” he explains. “So it’s really important that we characterize these gene pools into diverse gene pools that we can breed from. The underlying goal of my project was to characterize some of the University of Manitoba germplasm that is in commercial development for hybrid production, and figure out how to utilize these genetic resources properly.”

Out in the field, Lees did “pretty much what a breeder in a commercial company would do,” evaluating rows of parents for agronomic qualities like height, lodging resistance and flowering time.

“We did all those field evaluations ourselves, which is exactly what a commercial breeder would do. Then we made the decisions and Dr. Duncan made selections based on our phenotypic results,” he says.

Valeria Lobos, a PhD student in the program who aims to continue her career as a plant breeder following graduation, says she joined the program after she became interested in studying seed quality and agronomic improvement of rapeseed restorer lines.

“My previous research was in plant biotechnology and I was eager to learn about developing and improving commercial crops,” she says. “I enjoy being able to follow my plants through the entire process, from the molecular lab, tissue culture techniques, greenhouse, and then getting to see them growing in the field. It has given me a well-rounded perspective on what being a breeder entails.”

Duncan says that the program’s advancements in rapeseed development will pay off down the line for Canada’s canola growers. “They may not see the results tomorrow necessarily, but these are longer term investments that will pay dividends in future canola research,” he says.

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Julienne Isaacs

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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