Introducing genes from other plants into canola cultivars will do everything from bump up yields to fend off flea beetles to impart disease resistance.
Dr. Habibur Rahman, a canola researcher with the University of Alberta, is working on several projects to improve future canola cultivars. In one project, he and his research team are introducing genes from related crops such as cauliflower, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, rutabagas, and Chinese kale to improve agronomics.
“The main (goal) is to increase yield and to increase resistance to diseases like clubroot,” says Rahman. He also aims to improve other agronomic traits by diversifying canola’s germplasm.
Right now Rahman is developing germplasm in greenhouses and conducting field trials. In two or three years they will be testing some of the hybrids. If a particularly promising hybrid comes along, it might move into commercial development, but right now the goal is to simply broaden the genetic basis of the canola germplasm.
Viterra is contributing $1.6 million to the research in cash and in kind. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council is throwing in another $1.5 million. The University of Alberta and Viterra will share ownership of new cultivars emerging from this program.
Rahman is also working on another project to produce earlier flowering canola. Once again, he is pulling in genes from cabbage and cauliflower type plant species.
The genes cause canola to flower three or four days earlier in the field. “Now we are mapping the gene to find out where the genes are located (in the genome) and then trying to identify if the genes have any negative effect on yield,” says Rahman.
Brassica carinata has excellent resistance to all known virulent blackleg strains in North America. Rahman hopes to transfer this resistance into canola. But first he needs to pinpoint exactly where in the chromosomes the resistance genes are found.
Rahman also has additional projects involving clubroot resistance and molecular mapping of the resistance genes.
Fighting flea beetles with hairy canola
Researchers with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Saskatoon were studying flea beetle behaviour on different plants when they noticed that flea beetles didn’t like plants with hair. Instead of feeding, the pests jumped off the plants, leaving them undamaged.
Dr. Margaret Gruber and her colleagues isolated genes responsible for hair growth from canola and a plant called Arabidopsis, which is related to canola. By inserting these genes into canola, they created a hairy canola plant that seems to repel flea beetles.
Gruber says there is no yield penalty with the hairy canola plants they’ve developed. Seed quality and oil profile are well within the limits prescribed for canola as well.
The hair appears on the leaves and stems of the plants after the cotyledon stage. Although the cotyledons are hairless, they also repel flea beetles.
“We’re trying to understand why, when they’re smooth, they’re resistant,” says Gruber.
Gruber’s not yet sure whether a refuge system would be needed in commercial varieties. “But we’re starting to do those experiments and trying to get a sense if there was a large field of hairy canola, what would happen.”
Gruber’s research has been supported by Western Canada’s canola producers associations, plus the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments. She says they now have plants and seed ready for any companies that want to pick up the germplasm. But so far none have come forward to carry the research to the commercial arena.
“They may not pick it up because it’s transgenic and it would require quite a lot of funds to take it through the Canadian regulatory system,” says Gruber.
Gruber and her colleagues are now looking at how all genes involved in hair development express themselves in canola and a broader range of species related to the crop, such as mustards. They hope to use this information to develop a hairy canola variety without using transgenics by switching the right genes on or off.
They’ve already found some Brassica napus plants that are naturally hairy, though not nearly as hairy as the transgenic plants they’ve already developed. Gruber says they’ll probably field test the non-transgenic plants next summer.
Gruber and her colleagues are also looking at Brassica villosa, an extremely hairy plant native to Sicily and more closely related to broccoli and Brussels sprouts than canola.
“Hairy canola has about a thousand times the number of hairs of a regular canola plant. This one has maybe 4,000 times (the hair of regular canola),” says Gruber.
Researchers have plucked five genes that control hair development from Brassica villosa and inserted the genes into arabidopsis and canola. The genes don’t behave exactly the same in different plants.
“In arabidopsis they seem to behave very similarly to the arabidopsis gene. But these other genes are behaving a little bit differently in canola. There is one gene that has increased the hair in canola,” Gruber says.