DEVELOPING NEW WINTER
varieties that are better able to resist Fusarium
head blight (FHB), a complex and stubborn
disease that can destroy whole crops, is the
goal of the research efforts of Dr. Ali Navabi
and his team at the University of Guelph.
“We’re introducing novel plant breeding
materials, testing them for resistance against
the disease and suitability for Ontario
conditions, then using them in making crosses
to Ontario-adapted varieties,” he says. The
idea is to come up with a variety that can
weather this province’s climate and better
fight off FHB.
Navabi is an associate professor within
the Department of Plant Agriculture at
the University of Guelph, and holds the
Grain Farmers of Ontario Professorship in
FHB, also called scab, is a fungal disease that
affects small grain crops such as barley, oats,
and wheat. It is devastating in that it reduces
yields, grades, and the quality of the grain’s
end use, and also produces toxins. Ontario’s
moist, humid conditions are conducive to the
onset and spread of the disease.
The project, which started in May 2014,
actually has three components. The first is
variety development, the second is
characterizing genetically-diverse winter
wheat materials at both the molecular and
field level, and the third is an inheritance
study of FHB resistance in wheat.
Over three-and-a-half years, researchers
worked on 450 winter wheat accessions
(distinct, identifiable samples of seed) that
were collected from across Canada, including
Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta,
and from as early as pre-1900.
“We wanted to capture the Canadian winter
wheat’s genetic diversity, both geographically
and historically,” Navabi says.
The “Canadian Winter Wheat Diversity Panel”
as it’s called, was developed by PhD candidate
Harwinder Singh Sidhu and is the basis of
The seeds were planted in research plots,
infected with the disease, and subjected to
an environment that encouraged its growth.
Then, they were monitored through the year
and data was collected and recorded about
how each line was performing in the field.
Samples of DNA were also extracted from
each of the same 450 lines and genotyped
for the presence of genetic markers (small
pieces of DNA with known location), used in
studies of genetic diversity. Every sample was
tested for a total of around 90,000 different
“We now have very rich datasets of genetic
information and field performance data
on how these lines perform against FHB,”
Helping with the massive job in the plant
pathology laboratory was post-doctoral
research associate Mitra Serajazari.
Fighting off Fusarium head blight
DEVELOPING ONTARIO-ADAPTED VARIETIES
PHD CANDIDATE HARWINDER SINGH
SIDHU (FRONT) COLLECTING DATA IN
THE TEST PLOTS AT THE UNIVERSITY
Besides collecting the data, the
researchers also compared the field
and molecular markers and have been
finding markers that are linked to
genes that contribute to resistance to
the disease. These can then be used in
selecting varieties with higher levels of
They’ve also produced at least 150
crosses of selected genetic materials
each year. Normally, actually arriving
at new varieties takes many years,
from the time the cross was made.
“In plant breeding, you need to go
through multiple generations to reach
a certain level of genetic purity,”