New approach taken to cold-tolerant research

Screening genotypes to identify germplasm that is more tolerant of cold soil conditions allows growth earlier in the spring

Scientists at the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatoon hope to find ways to squeeze more production out of Western Canada’s short and frost-prone growing seasons.

Earlier this year, GIFS researchers Joanne Ernest and Leon Kochian received a $600,000 research grant through the province of Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund.

The funding will be used by a GIFS project that’s aimed at extending the growing season for canola and soybeans in Saskatchewan.

The project was one of 47 crop-related research projects that were selected to share $11 million in ADF funding this year.

Ernest said the GIFS project has similar goals to other projects that were launched in hopes of getting more production out of the short prairie growing season and mitigating production risks that are posed by cold temperatures and frost.

However, the strategy employed by the GIFS project is significantly different.

“Scientists (involved in other projects) have worked really hard to shorten the period from when the (plant) emerges from the soil to the moment when you can harvest (seed),” said Ernest, a post-doctoral fellow who specializes in the study of seed proteins and reproductive characteristics.

“So when we talk about early maturing and very early maturing (soybean) varieties, that’s really (about) trying to shorten that maturation period.”

“The downside of that, aside from the fact that we’ve probably done it to death … is that there’s an associated yield penalty because the plants … aren’t as big and full and they don’t have as much green tissue….”

The GIFS project will approach the problem from a different angle.

Instead of developing plants that require less time to produce mature seeds, the GIFS scientists will screen canola and soybean genotypes to identify germplasm that is more tolerant of cold soil conditions, allowing the plant to start growth earlier in spring.

Maturation might take longer than an early-maturing oilseed variety, but the processes of germination and root development start earlier, even in sub-optimal soil temperatures.

Ernest said the GIFS project will look at canola and soybeans, but the concept and research strategy could be applied to other western Canadian crops, including corn, pulses and cereals.

“The main benefits that I see for canola … are that faster germination will hopefully mean … more efficient stand establishment, so that instead of seeing only 60 percent of seeds (that are planted) reaching maturity, we could get a higher percentage of seeds that successfully emerge and establish, so there’s a cost saving there to producers, right away.

“Also, ideally, if producers are able to sow their canola earlier (without the risk of reduced germination or seed viability) then there’s less risk of frost damage during the really sensitive seed filling stage….

“Obviously, it’s not every year we get an early (fall) frost but the reduction in risk hopefully will be of benefit to farmers and producers.”

In canola production, costs are relatively high and the risks associated with cold soil temperatures and early fall frosts are high.

Soybeans, meanwhile, are typically grown in southern Manitoba and in parts of southeastern Saskatchewan, where moisture and heat units are relatively abundant.

Attempts to expand soybean production into new regions of the West are limited by the length of the growing season.

Ernest, Kochian and research collaborators have acquired a bank of canola and soybean genotypes that will be screened in a controlled environment under low temperature growing conditions, potentially as low as 0 C to 5 C.

Researchers will look for seeds that begin the germination process earlier, seeds that develop faster and seeds that establish root systems faster.

From there, the most productive seeds will be assessed and genetic markers will be developed so that individual genes within the seeds can be introduced into elite germplasm that will eventually be commercialized as new cold-tolerant varieties.

As part of the ADF funding agreement, GIFS will hand over the most promising germplasm, as well as genetic markers that identify genes linked to cold tolerance, to pre-breeding programs at Agriculture Canada and the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre.

The goal is to develop new cold-tolerant canola and soybean varieties that are commercialized and available to growers within a decade or so.

Steve Webb, executive director and chief executive officer of GIFS, said the project is an example of relevant research being conducted at GIFS.

“From a GIFS perspective … we’re working on a problem that is relevant to producers here in Western Canada and producers here in Saskatchewan…,” Webb said.

“We’re still about high quality research, but it has to be research with a purpose … so, outcomes that can help with the sustainable production of food.”

A complete list of crop research projects funded by the ADF in 2020 can be viewed online here.

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