New technology boosting crop genetics

Dr. André Laroche operates in a world defined by nanometers and microliters. But this tiny world—the molecular universe of crop genetics—just got a lot bigger.
New technology in molecular biology has given Laroche, a scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research Centre, and other crop researchers a tremendous boost in their power to probe the genetics of wheat and other major Canadian crops.
This includes the ability to decode the genetics that determine whether a crop will develop key economic diseases such as rust and common bunt—opening wide potential to prevent disease, protect the environment, and improve crop performance.
In effect, the new technology takes scientists inside the molecular structure of plants, dramatically expanding the genetic landscape they have to work with.
For Laroche, who works mainly with wheat, that means an up-close look at many of the more than 20,000 genes that provide the blueprint for Canada’s crop king.
Somewhere in that haystack are the gene units that make wheat susceptible or resistant to nearly all major disease threats.
By pinpointing those units and learning more about their function, researchers can develop new crop varieties with built-in disease resistance.
Before the recent technology advances, scientists relied heavily on observing how crops responded to diseases in the field. The molecular genetic approach adds tremendous resolution power.
Much of the potential in crops stems from work done as part of the Human Genome Project, which in the crops realm was followed by the Arabidopsis (a wild cousin of canola) and rice genome projects.
The Human Genome Project pioneered the use of new molecular biology tools to identify large number of genes—a process called genetic sequencing.
This included learning how genes function individually and in interaction with other genes inside the cell.
The same potential in humans to decode and prevent diseases such as multiple sclerosis now extends to decoding performance and diseases in crops.
A decade ago, it would have taken at least a week to sequence a portion of three or four genes.
Now, in 12 hours, more than 100 genes can be sequenced.
Laroche is a member of the scientific team that has received funding from Genome Canada to study the functional genomics of abiotic stress in crops.
A core focus for Laroche and his colleagues is examining the genetic blueprint for cold tolerance in wheat—a project with tremendous promise to expand Canada’s winter wheat growing area.
This broad-based initiative is one of several studies in the works that add significant resources and brings together teams of researchers across the country to explore the new potential in crop genomics.
Dates to remember
•Nov. 2—Top of the Line beef cattle sale, Stratton Sales Yard. Viewing at 11 a.m., sale at 1 p.m.

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