Seed World

Curtis Pozniak Loves Playing the Numbers Game

Curtis Pozniak is a wheat breeder at the University of Saskatchewan.

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At 42, Curtis Pozniak is a visionary breeder with lofty plans to move wheat breeding forward. After helping to complete the first draft wheat genome sequence (he co-led the Canadian Triticum Applied Genomics project with Andrew Sharpe of the Global Institute of Food Security that did a chunk of the work), he’s now the global lead of a new project to sequence 15 more.

“Looking forward, we realized one genome sequence doesn’t really help us understand genetic differences between varieties of wheat. The idea is to generate multiple wheat genome sequences so that we can start comparing different varieties to see what makes them unique,” he says. “Each variety has its own unique genetic profile, and it is these differences that relate to agronomic performance, disease resistance or quality profiles. This comparison is critical to help us map out the wheat genome blueprint and not understand just one, but many — and how that relates to agronomic performance.”

Despite his status as a prodigy of the wheat breeding world, as a young man his career aspirations had nothing to do with science — he leaned toward the recording studio instead of the lab.

The young Pozniak took up guitar and vocals, forming a family band with his dad and brother and some other musicians from his home town in Saskatchewan.

“After spending a couple years as an undergrad at the University of Saskatchewan, I realized plant breeding was what I really wanted to do. I always found genetics fascinating,” he says. “I had strong mentors that helped steer me in that direction and pushed me to my full potential.”

Music remains is a big passion for Pozniak, and he still plays in a band and counts it as his other big passion.

“It’s stuck with me still. It’s my stress reliever — having a hobby that can take your mind off of daily stresses is always healthy. Whether it’s breeding or music or art, it requires a passion for the discipline you’re in. This is the key to success. As a professor, I have the opportunity to interact with undergrad and graduate students and it’s a common theme I see in those who are highly successful — a genuine interest and passion in what they are doing. Having that interest makes it less of a job and more of a vocation — with passion your career is never a struggle .”

But he keeps coming back to work, of course, helping boost the profile of wheat at a time when the industry is talking about value creation and encouraging more private investment in the crop.

“Our work is to build tools useful to wheat breeding. A complete genome is just one piece of the puzzle to helping create new varieties of wheat. Wheat breeders have been doing an phenomenal job improving yield potential of the crop, maintaining disease resistance and insect resistance while ensuring the product is marketable by having a suitable end use package,” he says.

“Breeding is very much a numbers game — anything you can do to improve selection efficiency will go a long way to helping producers in regard to new and better varieties. Having access to a genome sequence is one tool in the toolbox for doing that. The task now will be for breeders to effectively integrate it into their toolbox to improve their selection efficiency.”