Non-hybrids with hybrid vigour just one goal of biotech research

Wheat shown at the Agriculture Canada green house located in Saskatoon, Sask. (Dale Leftwich/RealAgriculture.)

The joke in Saskatoon is that you come for the weather, but stay because you can’t get a flight out. Kidding aside, Saskatoon is actually a hub of biotech research and development with findings and products with the potential to benefit farmers all over the world.

Because of this, Global Biotech Week is an event celebrated around the world in late September, but nowhere perhaps as enthusiastically than in Saskatoon.

In honour of the week, Dale Leftwich, RealAgriculture’s Saskatchewan field editor, recently met with Dr. Maurice Maloney, CEO and executive director of the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), to talk about biotechnology and innovations being developed in Saskatoon.

One interesting project is focused on making conventionally bred plants grow like hybrids. Hybrid vigour has been of tremendous value to food production, so valuable in fact, that billions of dollars are spent each year in plant breeding to harness the power of this genetic mash up. If farmers could get this effect without the cost of hybridization, it would be of tremendous benefit, Maloney explains.

“We are looking at ways in which we can produce the same effect as a hybrid, sometimes that is called a hybrid mimic, but basically to find ways that enable us to produce the same kind of vigour without the economic hurdle of having to do the kind of crosses in the field you can only do with relatively few species,” Maloney says. (Story continues below)

Saskatoon is attracting world renowned scientists to do just this type of research. Maloney explains the true reason that scientists are coming to this prairie town and getting involved in this research. He says, “The reason we get such great scientists here, I think, is partly infrastructure and then it’s partly the kind of people we’ve got clustered around that infrastructure.”

One part of this infrastructure is the Canadian Light Source, one of only four such facilities in North America, and 25 in the entire world. Maloney explains, “That is a unique installation in Canada, and it can be used for medical purposes, but it can be used for all kinds of agricultural uses. We look at things like nutritional quality in seed, we can look right through soil and see what the roots are doing inside soil and we can measure aspects of growth, even at a cellular level.”

Another relatively rare piece of hardware being put to use for agricultural research is the cyclotron. Although the exact number is hard to pin down exactly, there are not more than forty installations like it in the entire world, and they are in high demand for a wide variety of scientific research.

According to Maloney, “The cyclotron enables us to make short-lived radio isotopes that help us with imaging. Now people who have ever had medical imaging done it is the same principle. You take a short-lived radio isotope in a drink and then it looks at your vascular system to figure out if you’ve got ayt blockages in your arteries. Well, in a plant you can do pretty much the same thing. You can feed similar isotopes to a plant and look at the transport and the function at a cellular level inside the plant.”

With unique infrastructure, talented people, and resources coming together in one place, it is no wonder Biotech Week is a big thing in Saskatoon and around the world.

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