U of S awarded $37.2 to design crops for global food security

Posted on July 29, 2015

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The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) has been awarded $37.2 million over seven years by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund for leading-edge research and technology that will transform crop breeding and provide innovative solutions to national and global food security.

The U of S is one of only five universities in Canada selected by an international board to receive funding under the new federal program in which 36 Canadian post-secondary institutions competed for up to $350 million.

“We are thrilled to be chosen for this major investment that will build on our university’s renowned strengths in crop development, imaging technology and high-performance computing to transform Canada’s capacity to produce food and help feed a growing world,” said U of S Vice-President Research Karen Chad.

“We envisage that by 2022, our Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre will be a unique resource for plant breeders around the world, making possible the development of sustainable new crop varieties with specific desired traits—all at a previously unimaginable speed and scale.”

The investment—the single largest federal grant ever received by the university—will advance one of the world’s largest hubs of food-related researchers located at the U of S and will involve partnerships with four Canadian universities, three international universities, and more than 15 private and public organizations. The National Research Council and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada will be key partners.

The research will involve multidisciplinary teams across campus and around the world under the leadership of the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), a research institute built on a unique public-private partnership the U of S has with PotashCorp and the Government of Saskatchewan.

GIFS Executive Director Maurice Moloney noted that over the next 50 years, farmers will need to grow more food than has cumulatively been grown since humankind emerged. “This investment will provide us with a tremendous opportunity to create transformative techniques for crop development that will position Canada and the Global Institute for Food Security as world leaders in crop research for food security,” Moloney said.

He noted that major advances in plant breeding have been made possible through DNA sequencing and genomics. However, Moloney said the power of genomics can only be realized by linking phenotypes (breeding traits) to genotypes (DNA sequences).

“For the past 10,000 years, most phenotypes have been identified visually by eye. This is a laborious process that can be automated. Advanced imaging techniques, combined with high-performance computing, now make this feasible. This digital approach to plant breeding will allow us to ‘design’ the next generation of crops and accelerate their development,” he said, adding, “This digital ‘by-design’ approach will allow plant breeders anywhere in the world with internet access to access all the information they need to design a superior plant suited to their geographic region.” 

To achieve this, U of S agricultural and nutritional scientists will collaborate with computer scientists, engineers and imaging technologists to use powerful computational informatics, the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, and other U of S imaging facilities to create digital representations of plant phenotypes (agricultural traits). Data analytics experts will then link these phenotypes to specific genes (DNA sequences) specifying important crop traits.

Moloney anticipates that the breakthrough science made possible by this investment will position Canada as a global powerhouse in agricultural research and lead to commercial spin-offs involving field and aerial sensors (drones), satellite imaging, and big data analytics, as well as new technology for acquiring below-ground data.

Drawing on legal, policy and economic expertise at the university and at partnering institutions, the team will develop policies and strategies to encourage producers around the world to take up the new technologies. The Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and community-based researchers will provide understanding of the societal, economic and policy dimensions of these technologies in the developed and developing world.

The project is expected to enhance the university’s ability to attract top talent in its signature area of Agriculture: Food and Bioproducts for a Sustainable Future. Recruitment of additional tenure-track faculty, research associates and technical staff will accelerate outcomes. Scores of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows will be trained over the next seven years.

The project will involve researchers from a wide range of U of S colleges, including Agriculture and Bioresources with its renowned Crop Development Centre, Engineering, Pharmacy and Nutrition, Veterinary Medicine, and Arts and Science, as well as U of S research centres that include the CLS, Canada’s only synchrotron which can be used to study soil and nutrient uptake in plants; the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation which operates a cyclotron capable of creating radioisotopes for all forms of biological imaging; and the U of S Global Institute for Water Security, an international centre of water research that influences agricultural practice in Western Canada and worldwide.

The new centre is strongly endorsed by partners such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

“We believe that the integration of advanced imaging with genomics and conventional phenotyping within the new centre will prove to be a powerful tool for improving crop performance and securing Canada’s position as a global leader in agriculture research,” said Gabriel Piette, AAFC acting director general for the Prairie Boreal Plain Ecozone.


For more information, contact:
James Shewaga
Media Relations Specialist
University of Saskatchewan
(306) 966-1851
james.shewaga@usask.ca