Saskatoon, Sask. – Canada’s largest federal grant has gone to the University of Saskatchewan and will help the university transform the country’s capacity to produce food and help feed the world’s growing population.
In July, the university received $37.2 million over seven years by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.
The university says it was one of five 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.
The funding will go toward leading-edge research and technology that will transform crop breeding and provide innovative solutions to national and global food security.
“We envisage that by 2022, our Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre will be a unique resource for plant breeders around the world,” says Karen Chad, the university’s vice-president, Research, “making possible the development of sustainable new crop varieties with specific desired traits — all at a previously unimaginable speed and scale.”
The university’s goal, explains TheStarPhoenix.com, is for growers around the world to digitally design the crops that best suit their needs by tapping into new, universally available databases.
TheStarPhoenix.com goes onto explain that over the next seven years, biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and others will help build the Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre.
The investment 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 are key partners.
The university adds that 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 university has with PotashCorp and the province of Saskatchewan.
Maurice Moloney, GIFS’ executive director, notes 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 GIFS as world leaders in crop research for food security,” he said.
On the university’s website, Moloney goes onto explain that major advances in plant breeding have been made possible through DNA sequencing and genomics.
However, he says, 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.
“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,” he added.
To achieve this, the university’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.
Image of hands typing on laptop courtesy of Suwit Ritjaroon at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image of crops courtesy of mapichai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net