Project provides unique evolutionary insights and new tools for plant breeders

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) researcher from Saskatoon Isobel Parkin is part of an international team that has deciphered the complex genome of Brassica napus, extensively cultivated as ‘canola’ in Canada. Boulos Chalhoub from the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in France led a team of scientists from 30 research institutes from all regions where the crop is produced, including National Research Council Canada (NRC).

According to Chalhoub, “Canada’s contribution was an essential component of the research, assisting with the complicated task of assembling the canola genome and providing access to the genome for one of the ancestral parental species.”

In the process, the team gained ground-breaking knowledge about the origins of crop species that will help accelerate on-going breeding efforts in the crop – “contributing to sustainable increases in oilseed crop production to meet growing demands for both edible and biofuel oils.”  The results were published in the prestigious journal Science (August 22 issue, 2014).

Brassica napus plants, the most commonly grown canola, originated just a few thousand years ago from unintentional crosses between European cabbages and Asian turnips. Because all flowering plants originated from such events (but in most cases millions of years ago) the canola genome provides unique insight into the early formation of new species in plants.  

Unlike many other plants, B. napus canola has retained almost all of the genes of its two parental species, probably due to breeding efforts. These multiple gene copies provide novel material for further adaptation of the crop. 

With around 101,000 genes, it contains one of the highest gene densities of any sequenced organism – in comparison, humans have less than 30,000 genes.  

“The genome sequence of canola has uncovered the complexities which define this important crop,” says Parkin, “This knowledge will prove invaluable for making future agronomic improvements.”  

A History of Collaboration
Canola, with its bright yellow flowers, is a familiar sight on the Canadian Prairies; grown on over 20 million acres in 2014, it represents a significant contribution to the agricultural economy. According to the Canola Council of Canada, the “Canadian-grown canola contributes $19.3 billion to the Canadian economy each year, including more than 249,000 Canadian jobs and $12.5 billion in wages.” 

This is not by accident: researchers in Saskatoon have a long history of working with the crop. In fact, the species most commonly grown today, and whose healthy oil is found on the shelves of every supermarket, was developed through collaboration between scientists at AAFC, NRC and the University of Manitoba in the 1970s. Today, canola is the most important temperate oilseed crop in not only Canada, but also in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Key Highlights
– Canola is a significant Canadian crop, contributing over $19 billion to our economy every year. 
– In collaboration with international and domestic researchers, AAFC scientist Isobel Parkin has provided invaluable knowledge and has worked extensively on the canola genome sequencing project. 
– Canola has a massive genome of over 100,000 genes. Its’ sequenced genome will provide researchers with unique evolutionary insights and new tools for plant breeders. 

Isobel Parkin will be speaking at the 14th International Rapeseed Congress, July 5-9, 2015 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.


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