Skip to content

USask crop researchers receive $5.7 million for new research

Funding through Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund
usask 72
A drone above USask’s Kernen Crop Research Farm.

MOOSOMIN - Twenty-five researchers from the University of Saskatchewan have been awarded more than $5.7 million to develop crop-related innovations, in support of 34 ongoing agriculture projects.

The funding came through Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund (ADF), a provincial government program that was created to fund research in order to help farmers and ranchers become more successful. 

ADF focuses on providing funding for “basic and applied agriculture research projects in crops, livestock, forages, processing, soils, environment, horticulture and alternative crops,” according to the Government of Saskatchewan.

USask researcher and professor of plant sciences Karen Tanino, was awarded $435,531 to further develop her research on heat and frost avoidance in crops, and focus on the importance of the plant cuticular layer.

“The cuticular layer is like your skin, but it’s a waxier layer on the plant. It’s usually composed of various types of waxes and is the outer layer of the plant and the first line of the stem,” said Tanino.

She said that the more waxy or hydrophobic the cuticular layer is, the less chance the plant has of freezing.

“We’ve heard about super hydrophobic products where the water just runs right off. The more hydrophobic the cuticular layer is, the less water that is hanging around, and the less water that is hanging around, the less freezing that can occur. So if there’s no water on the leaves, then the ice wouldn’t be able to freeze on the plants.”

Her research focuses on abiotic stress, on how droughts, salinity, low or high temperatures, and other environmental extremes, impact crop yields. 

“The bottom line (of our research) is avoidance of stress, avoiding frost and avoiding heat. What we learned is that the plant is better to avoid stress rather than really deal with it. It takes a lot more energy and a lot more tools for the plant to deal with the stress, than it does to avoid the stress.” 

The funds awarded for her research will go towards further studying how the cuticular layer of a plant, can help prevent heat or frost from impacting the crop.

“Our research is to first validate that the cuticular layer plays a key role, secondly, to identify those key genes that will improve both frost avoidance, and heat stress avoidance, so that breeders can then use that into their breeding programs for selection.”

Research associate Tawhidur Rahman says he and Tanino have already tested their research of the cuticular layer, on model plants that are similar to canola. 

“This particular membrane around the plant (cuticular layer), can actually help the plant overcome multiple environmental stress conditions, like drought, freezing weather and heat conditions,” he said.

“If we can do that for canola, canola is one of the sensitive crops in Saskatchewan’s weather because it needs a lot of water and it takes a longer duration to grow, so if we can modify the membrane layer for canola, then it might be a game changer for the whole thing.”

Tanino said the research on the prevention of plant abiotic stress, can help current and future farmers gain more product from their harvest. 

“If we can either identify an inexpensive and affective spray, it would help. Also, we can help breeders to develop new cultivars that can better avoid frost and better avoid heat stress. Those cultivars and varieties will then get passed on to the farmers and they’ll be able to better get through some of these uncertain climate changes that we have,” said Tanino.

“It’s basically helping the plant to become more resilient to different stresses. Especially in the fall, there’s usually a first fall frost, and then we get two to three weeks of nice growing weather, if we can just get through that first fall frost, we can easily extend our growing season even more.” 

Tanino said the research of the heat and frost avoidance in crops, and focus on the importance of the plant cuticular layer, has the potential to benefit Saskatchewan’s overall agriculture industry.

“This would be useful for the farmers but also homeowners too, because a lot of people have gardens and they’re growing tomatoes or cucumbers, all these sensitive crops. If we can somehow avoid frost on these crops just by a spray, then maybe it will enable the home owners to produce more crops.”

Overall, their research will focus on the genetic improvement of plants in environmental stress conditions, in Canada. 


Preventing wheat midge and other wheat diseases

Another USask researcher Pierre Hucl, was awarded $312, 737 from ADF, to further develop his research on three research studies regarding wheat. The first research study focuses on the field evaluation of next field Evaluation of next-generation solid-stemmed CWRS Wheat.

The second study focuses on new source of resistance to Fusarium Head Blight (FHB): wheat-thinopyrum derivatives, and the third is about the trait stacking to maximize resistance to the wheat midge.

“There are three projects that were awarded funds that I’m listed on. Two of them have to deal with insect tolerance in spring wheat, and the third project is to deal with disease resistance, a disease called Fusarium Head Blight (FHB). It affects wheat and other cereals like barley and oat,” says Hucl.

He explains how the insects that are attracted to the wheat plants affect crops, and harms farmers yield overall.

“Imagine a wheat plant growing during the summer, the soft flies leave the eggs inside the stem and they basically feed off the inside of the stem, as they go up and down the stem.“

“Then in the fall, they basically nibble the inside of the stem and then cover themselves with it, until the winter. What happens then is that the stems fall over and it looks like they’re being sawed off.”

As a result from insects finding their way inside plants and damaging them, Hucl says producers tend to take a loss from their yields. However through his research, Hucl hopes to prevent that from happening. 

“One way to that is stemmed wheat, instead of having a hallowed straw, it’s filled with something called tick. This actually forms a physical barrier for the harvest so that the insects can’t physically travel inside the stem and they starve to death,” he says.

“It’s a mechanical way, a quite effective one, of damaging insects. The insect will be in the plant but it won’t be able to travel up the stem and feed properly.”

Hucl says that there’s a gene in wheat grass that you can transfer over to spring wheat to add the trait.

“We’re trying to bring in tolerance from any source that we can find because there’s limited variabilities within wheat species. There are no species that is immune, but there are different genes present in other species that we can bring in.”

“Basically what we’re trying to do is stack different sources of resistance into one variety and it can be from close relatives of wheat, you know points of some of the ancestral species of wheat, or it can be things that lay outside that are distantly related, like wheat grass.”

For his third line of work, wheat midge, Hucl says his research is trying to select higher yield so that wheat is economically competitive against other crops.

“With wheat midge we’ve been fortunate to have work done on it about 25 years ago. They were able to identify a single gene that gives resistance to wheat midge,” he says.

“We’re working with one gene and one of the things is that gene resistance tends to break down over time, whether it’s for insects, or for fungi or bacteria, and so over the last few years researchers have been trying to find alternate sources of tolerance resistance to the wheat midge. To either protect the SM1 gene, or rebase it, if it breaks down.”

With all three projects combined, Hucl says his research will overall help the agriculture industry economically and help farmers get higher yields.

“At this point we’re talking economics of the crop, that’s the bottom line. In terms of the work we’re doing is either trying to protect what we already have or in the hands of what we have, to increase our competitiveness in the international markets. Since we basically export three quarters of what we grow, it’s important that we satisfy importers of our product.”