Despite their prominence on the world market, Canadian lentils are in a limited position in terms of genetics, says Kirstin Bett, a pulse crop geneticist at the University of Saskatchewan and co-leader of the AGILE project.
“We have been able to make excellent genetic gain for Canadian farmers through dedicated plant breeding efforts,” she says. “However, breeders are restricted to using only a handful of breeding materials in their crosses, as they have to develop varieties that are well-adapted to the temperate growing condition.”
AGILE (Application of Genomics to Innovation in the Lentil Economy) is aimed at changing this. The Canada-centred international project recently completed genetic sequencing on more than 300 lentil varieties, including several wild relatives. The information is now freely available at the U of S KnowPulse pulse crop researcher resource site online.
Lentils are a Canadian success story, with the country producing nearly half the world’s crop in 2016, nearly all of this in Saskatchewan. Yet the varieties here are largely based on a relatively small pool of cultivars brought to Canada in the mid-1970s from Washington state and Idaho.
“Compared to other crops like wheat, canola and soybean, lentil is considered to be an orphan crop with respect to genetic resources,” Bett says.
While they are grown all over the world, lentils are not native to North America, originating in the Mediterranean region and Central Asia. In general, they prefer cool weather, on the dry side, and hundreds of varieties thrive in the fields of India, Nepal, Spain and Canada. Each offers traits unique to its growing region.
Bert Vandenberg, who co-leads AGILE with Bett, holds the NSERC-Saskatchewan Pulse Growers Industrial Research Chair in Genetic Improvement of Lentil. The producer organization is one of the funders of AGILE, together with the Western Grains Research Foundation, Genome Prairie, Genome Canada and the Saskatchewan government.
Vandenberg said the ability to apply genetic knowledge to lentils promises to unlock the workings behind field traits such as yield, height, drought and disease tolerance, as well as consumer traits such as look, taste and texture. He is particularly interested in flowering with the aim of eventually matching this crop phase better to Canadian seasons and growing conditions.
“We’d like to fully understand how flowering occurs in response to environments,” he says.
For example, by comparing Indian lentils to Canadian varieties, the researchers may be able to tease out if and how environmental cues trigger the genes that start and maintain flowering.
“(Indian lentils) are sown in November instead of May,” Vandenberg says.
“That makes them almost impossible to use here because they have a different response to day length and possibly temperature. So that’s what we’re trying to unravel.”
Once these genes are identified, they could be used to develop varieties that flower and set seed at the times best suited to the Canadian growing season.
Genomic knowledge, along with molecular breeding techniques and information technology, promise to help develop new varieties faster than ever before.
“We’re now at the cusp with this crop of being able to say, ‘these are the genes we want,’ and we can select against those genes based on the DNA code,” Vandenberg says.
“For example, when we’re designing new crosses, we can sometimes make them on the basis of a very simple DNA test. We can do a thousand samples in a morning and decide which ones we want to keep.”
One of the hoped-for benefits of the AGILE project is to keep farmers, well, agile in the face of different challenges. Stemphylium blight might be a problem one year, while a wet year could bring root rot. Plus, there is the spectre of climate change.
“Our weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable and we need to develop varieties resilient to all types of stressors so farmers will get a decent yield with good quality and still make a profit,” Bett says. “Innovation in plant breeding is key to maintaining progress. It’s like paddling against the current — we will fall behind if we stop.”
Yet AGILE is not all about Canadian interests. Lentils are an important crop and protein source worldwide, and improving it will take collaboration that ignores borders. In this spirit, the Canadian researchers have worked with partners in Europe as well as global institutions such as the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas.
“Very little progress will be made if lentil researchers and breeders only work in silos because there are just very few resources to begin with — both knowledge and money,” Bett says.
She adds that while everyone will benefit, Canada is well-positioned to maintain and build upon its leading role.
“The U of S breeding program is now in a position to develop varieties tailored to specific growing regions for global clients,” she says.
“This will expand our international reach and ensure benefits go back to Canada.”