Seed World

New Precision Ag Lab Could Enable Faster Breeding

IFS Research Technicians, Rick Goertzen and Zhijian Chai, at work in the OPAL lab. Credit: David Conlin

Following a successful year of building, prototyping and delivering services to select customers and partners, the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) has launched the Omics and Precision Agriculture Laboratory (OPAL).

The state-of-the-art facility combines the digital data analysis of microbial, plant and animal genes and traits with the latest precision agriculture technologies (agtech). The goal is to speed up innovation towards new products and services that would enhance profitability and sustainability across the agriculture and food sectors.

OPAL was founded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the National Research Council of Canada and USask, with strategic investment from Western Economic Diversification Canada. A first of its kind, it is the only facility in the country to provide analytical and computational services including genomics (the study of genetic materials), phenomics (the study of an organism’s traits) and bioinformatics (analyses of biological data). It combines these with the use of the latest imaging and agtech such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), the remote aerial imaging of plants and in-field environmental monitoring, to provide clients with a complete diagnostic profile of samples.

“Thanks to the invaluable support of our partners, we have been able to set up a highly equipped facility that is a one-stop shop for the comprehensive analyses of microbe, plant and animal samples, and we are very pleased to have these advanced services available here to complement Saskatchewan’s thriving biotechnology ecosystem,” GIFS Chief Executive Officer Steven Webb said.

“As a technology platform, OPAL will use advanced tools and digital agtech to address big issue challenges facing the agriculture and food sectors, aligning with GIFS’ mission to work with partners to discover, develop and deliver innovative solutions for the production of globally sustainable food.”

Examples of those challenges OPAL was created to help resolve are climate change and limited water and nutrient resources. Using OPAL’s precision agtech, farmers will be able to target plants with the precise amount of inputs, water, fertilizers and crop protection products, needed in their fields. This precision in agriculture means a more efficient use of resources, leading to accelerated breeding (crops, animals), reduced impact on the environment, increased quality crop yield, less waste and enhanced efficiency for breeders, agronomists, producers and other clients.

The facility will also serve as a vehicle to deploy cutting-edge technology developed through the Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre, a digital agricultural research centre funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund and managed by GIFS on behalf of the university.

The versatility of OPAL’s laboratory equipment means it can analyze virtually all genetic material on large scales. This was the case during the one-year pilot when GIFS loaned its equipment to support the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s diagnostic testing for COVID-19.

“Agtech has the infrastructure and capacity to support the health sector through its adaptable equipment that can be used for very large-scale and automated applications including genetic testing and sequencing, virus detection, protein analysis, and gene expression,” said Webb.

“We were pleased to be able to support the Health Authority’s efforts by making our equipment available for the important testing needed at the time.”

Its ability to offer start-to-finish solutions differentiates OPAL from other laboratories that focus solely on data acquisition or analysis. The facility will provide clients with solutions tailored to their data and analysis needs including: experiment design and workflow, genomic and/or phenomic technical support, and data acquisition and analysis, as well as consulting on technical details and costings for project planning.