Wheat research program hopes to build on momentum

A research scientist with the National Research Council in Saskatoon discusses his research with visitors during a Canadian Wheat Alliance open house on March 16, 2016. | Brian Cross photo

An unprecedented wheat research program that will spend close to $100 million to improve knowledge and develop new plant breeding technologies is about to begin bearing fruit.

The Canadian Wheat Alliance, launched in 2013, was initially billed as a five-year, $97 million research project involving scientists from Agriculture Canada, the National Research Council, the University of Saskatchewan and other collaborating institutions.

Last week, members from the CWA management committee said the program’s first products will soon be made available to wheat breeders and program collaborators.

“Our goal from the beginning was that our research will (result in products) that can be commercialized,” said Faouzi Bekkaoui, committee chair and executive director of the NRC’s Wheat Improvement Program.

“One of the (first) deliverables that we may see is the doubled haploidy system (for wheat breeding).”

“We are still finalizing the method, but hopefully it (the doubled haploidy system) will be provided as a service and … used (to develop new wheat varieties).”

The doubled haploidy project is one of more than a dozen research projects that fall within the CWA program. You can download a complete list of CWA projects here (PDF format)

It uses a new method to produce doubled haploidy wheat lines that can reduce the time required to develop and commercialize a new wheat variety by two to four years.

“Right now, it can take 10 to 14 years to come up with a new wheat variety, but with a doubled haploidy system, you can take two to four years out of that breeding cycle,” said Bekkaoui.

The doubled haploidy project is led by NRC scientist Alison Ferrie, but also involves scientists from Agriculture Canada and collaboration from Syngenta and KWS.

Other projects that are close to delivering products with commercial potential include:

• a fusarium head blight resistance project that has developed “two breeder friendly molecular markers” that can be used to develop new wheat varieties with improved fusarium resistance

• a new high-throughput genotyping platform that will increase breeding efficiency by allowing breeders to profile as many as 24 molecular markers simultaneously, up from two or three currently.

The high-throughput genotyping system is expected to reduce the cost of marker profiling by as much as eight times, resulting in improved selection accuracy and greater breeder efficiency.

Bekkaoui said funding for Phase 1 of the CWA program has been almost fully allocated.

The CWA management committee is hoping to secure funding for a second phase that will build on the program’s momentum and potentially expand CWA research into new priority areas such as improving the quality of Canadian wheat and photosynthesis functions in wheat plants.

Projects in Phase 1 were focused on six priority areas:

* genomics assisted breeding

* improved cell technologies

* enhanced fusarium and rust tolerance

* improved plant performance and seed yield

* beneficial biotic reactions related to nutrient utilization

* enhanced tolerance to biotic stresses including drought, heat and cold temperatures

Bekkaoui said involving scientists from different institutions with different types of expertise has benefitted the Canadian wheat industry.

“The collaboration has been very important,” he said.

“The CWA has benefitted from the sharing of germplasm and knowledge  … and we have also exchanged people.”

Through CWA agreements, “we have almost 10 people right now, NRC employees, working at Agriculture Canada, and we have three or four from the U of S working at NRC,” Bekkaoui said.

“I would say that that collaboration has been working quite well.”

New funding partners have been identified since the CWA initiative was launched, including provincial wheat commissions in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Contact brian.cross@producer.com

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