Seed World

How Young Plant Scientists are Creating Crops of the Future: Watch This Week’s Seed Speaks

The three recipients of this year’s Canadian Plant Breeding Innovation (CPBI) Scholarship have one big thing in common — they’re doing important work on a number of major crops that could ensure a brighter future for pea, durum and soybean in Canada.

On this week’s Seed Speaks, host Marc Zienkiewicz was joined by 2023 scholarship recipients Jérôme Gélinas Bélanger (McGill University), Loveleen Kaur Dhillon (University of Saskatchewan) and Ritesh Kumar Yadav (University of Manitoba).

The scholarships — part of the CPBI Awards program which also includes Seed of the Year and the Plant Breeding & Genetics Award — are made possible through a slate of great sponsors. On board as sponsors this year are Alberta Wheat & Barley, C&M Seeds, Canadian Seed Growers Association, FP Genetics, Germination, Nutrien Ag Solutions, Richardson, Sask Wheat, SeCan, Warburtons, Western Grains Research Foundation and Seeds Canada.

Bélanger, 35, is known as an ambitious, original and highly independent researcher who had his own idea to start a PhD research project aimed at identifying novel genes involved in the early flowering/maturity of soybeans using CRISPR-Cas9 and QTL mapping. Currently, his project aims to understand how to develop extra-early soybean varieties to enable cultivation in Canadian regions such as northern Saskatchewan and Alberta.

He’s also trying to develop novel genetic soybean transformation techniques that could increase the competitiveness of Canadian plant breeders and seed companies for other traits.

“As you know, soybean is a very important crop worldwide, but northern climates limit the kind of crops that can be grown, which includes soybean. Here in Quebec and Ontario soybean has been grown for quite a long time, but on the Prairies, it’s been very recent that soybean has been introduced into rotations,” Belanger says.

“The crop is important because it fixes nitrogen. For farmers on the western Prairies, soybean can be an additional nitrogen fixing crop in their rotation toolkit, which also means that they can generate a good profit margin out of this crop. Introducing new varieties that can be grown in more regions is something that could be a real game changer for farmers.”

Dhillon’s research broadly addresses the challenge of improving nitrogen fixation in pea, building on research conducted by post-doctoral fellow Tony Yang. Nitrogen fixation is a key benefit of legume crops, and expanded use of legume crops in cropping systems is a critical approach to reducing greenhouse gasses to address climate change. The 30-year-old’s PhD research has utilized plant breeding, physiology and molecular biology approaches.

The first paper from this research was recently published in Field Crops Research. In this paper she demonstrated that pea lines derived from crosses with nodulation mutants produced high grain yield along with higher N fixation potential and seed protein concentration than check cultivars, making them attractive for use in pea breeding programs.

“My research will definitely help to present pea as a sustainable crop option in the currently-dominated cereal and oilseed cropping systems of Canada, and it will reduce the dependence on nitrogenous fertilizers, and will definitely help to address the environmental pollution that is caused by these fertilizers — which also leads to a decrease in production crop production costs overall,” she says.

Yadav, 32, is conducting research into the development of genomic selection models for Fusarium head blight (FHB) resistance and winter hardiness in winter durum, a potential new class of wheat being developed at AAFC Lethbridge Research and Development Centre (Dr. Raja Ragupathy’s breeding program) in collaboration with winter wheat breeders at the University of Manitoba (Dr. Curt McCartney) and AAFC Ottawa (Dr. Gavin Humphreys).

Yadav’s PhD research is part of a winter durum development program being funded by the Western Grains Research Foundation and Sask Wheat. There was a single winter durum cultivar (OAC Amber, 2010) registered in Eastern Canada, and the program at AAFC Lethbridge will provide options for winter cereals growers in Western Canada.

“Genetic improvement of fusarium head blight resistance and winter hardiness, which are two priorities in winter wheat breeding programs, is actually super challenging, due to their complex inheritance. It’s extremely time consuming, labour intensive and costly. The development of robust genomic selection models will exploit the genotypic dataset and reduce cost; it will enable the screening of large durum germplasm with Fusarium head blight resistance and winter hardiness without large scale phenotyping,” he says.

“The selected non-phenotype material can be used for developing elite cultivars with improved FHB resistance using less money, less time and less resources, thus making winter durum cultivars a reality in Canada in the future.”

Watch this week’s episode of Seed Speaks at the top of the page!

The Canadian Plant Breeding Innovation Scholarships are sponsored by Alberta WheatAlberta BarleyC&M SeedsCanadian Seed Growers’ AssociationFP GeneticsGerminationNutrien Ag SolutionsRichardsonSaskWheatSeCanWarburtonsWestern Grains Research Foundation and Seeds Canada.