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Ashley Ammeter, Robert Duncan, Mohamed Elhiti and Kenny So examining populations in the greenhouse that vary for seed storage protein content. // Photo by Mike Latschislaw

Ashley Ammeter, Robert Duncan, Mohamed Elhiti and Kenny So examining populations in the greenhouse that vary for seed storage protein content. // Photo by Mike Latschislaw

Improving Canada’s most important crop

February 5, 2018 — 

A group of researchers led by plant scientist Rob Duncan is seeking to take a well-known Canadian crop into exciting and underexplored territory.

The Brassica Breeding Program in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences is working to identify and improve canola’s protein content and quality, a move that could boost the crop’s utility to producers and position it solidly in the highly competitive and growing plant-based protein market.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recognizes the need for more plant-based protein sources for both human and livestock consumption,” says Duncan. 

Currently, canola’s primary value lies in the oil—but the crop is also the source of other valuable products. Canola meal (what’s left of the canola seed after the oil has been extracted) is one of the most widely used protein sources for animal feed. 

“If we can increase the protein content and modify the content of the two main storage proteins (cruciferin and napin), the resulting meal and/or protein extracts may be highly valuable in human food products. These developments could transform canola meal from a by-product to a high-value co-product,” explains Duncan. 

“Due to the previous emphasis on oil and fatty acid content, little research effort has been directed to improving aspects of protein-related traits. Our current research will create an immense opportunity to expand the utilization of Canada’s most important crop,” says Duncan. “This could be a game changer.” 

Cruciferin and napin each have specific functional properties valuable in the food industry. Cruciferin acts as an excellent emulsifying, gelling and binding agent. Napin provides strong solubility, the ability to form transparent solutions, foaming properties and excellent nutritional value. 

Duncan’s group hopes to identify or develop variation for protein content and quality, and understand the genes and mechanisms that control protein content and quality. The result may lead to tailored genotypes for use in specialty, high quality food products.

In addition to characterizing the Brassica germplasm and genes, the team will explore how the genetic variation interacts with processing methods for developing products with improved protein quality and digestibility. Duncan is working with colleagues in food and human nutritional sciences —James House and Rotimi Aluko—to further understand canola’s protein interaction with processing methods and functionality. He and his group are also collaborators with larger teams of researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to expand the understanding and utilization of protein in canola meal. 

The Team

Perhaps one of the most beneficial aspects of research conducted in the university setting is the opportunity to provide training of highly qualified personnel, which ultimately contributes to a highly skilled labour force for Canada. The Brassica Breeding Program team includes graduate students and research associates, all who are developing expertise in high demand areas like plant breeding, genetics, genomics, protein chemistry and functionality. 

The team working on the canola protein research includes: Mohamed Elhiti, Ashley Ammeter, Kenny So, Danica Swaenepoel and Ralph Kowatsch. 

“These are the people that are making the discoveries on a daily basis,” says Duncan. 

In a short period of time, these students and staff have made notable progress in growing a diversity of Brassica genotypes in the field, analyzing the seed quality, extracting the seed storage proteins and quantifying the contents of cruciferin and napin. Swaenepoel is one of the first students to examine the variation for amino acid content in a diversity of genotypes. Elhiti and Kenny are making significant advancements utilizing genome-editing to study the impact of altered seed storage protein contents on other seed quality traits. 

Duncan is also quick to highlight the many staff members of the Brassica Breeding Program over the past several decades as well as the immense support from the department of plant science, the faculty, the U of M, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Bunge Canada, DL Seeds, Crop Protection Services, Manitoba Canola Growers and the Canola Council of Canada. 

“The continued success of Brassica cultivar and genetics development would simply not be possible without funding support and many scientists and staff members who have supported the research program in areas such as seed quality, molecular, doubled haploid, data analyses and management, greenhouse, field and pathology research and development.” 

Duncan says he is “honoured to be a small piece of this tradition and flag-ship program at the University of Manitoba.” 


The Canola Story

In 1961, a U of M plant breeder named Baldur Stefansson—known as the Father of Canola—tackled the challenge of modifying rapeseed, a Brassica crop (a genus of plants in the mustard family) used primarily for industrial applications, into a source of healthy oil for human consumption. 

After years of research and collaboration—and competition with his colleague Keith Downey at Agriculture and Agri- Food Canada, Stefansson released the first canola cultivar, Tower, in 1974, paving the way for other varieties of this healthy oilseed that was ultimately dubbed “canola.” 

Today the Canadian canola industry contributes over $26 billion to the economy annually, and heart-healthy canola oil can be found in kitchens and restaurants across the country. 

From those early days, the oilseed research program at the university has continued at breakneck speed. Stefansson’s work was primarily aimed at lowering components such as erucic acid, a fatty acid component deemed unhealthy to humans, and glucosinolates, pungent organic compounds found in cruciferous plants. Other research leaders such as Peter McVetty, Rachael Scarth and Roger Rimmer developed other cultivars, focusing on oil quality, disease and herbicide resistance and high yields. The university was the first to develop high erucic acid rapeseed (HEAR) varieties, grown for their oil which is used in lubricants, plastics, coatings and some cosmetics. 

Research was not confined to plant breeding and agronomy. Nutrition studies completed by professors Vivian Bruce and Bruce McDonald found canola oil effective in lowering blood cholesterol, and food quality studies by professors Marion Vaisey-Genser, Michael Eskin and Linda Malcolmson confirmed shelf life and deep-fry stability of canola oil and canola shortening. 

Story originally published in ResearchLIFE Winter 2018 Edition. Read the full magazine online.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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