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10

DEVELOPING NEW WINTER

wheat

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

Wheat Breeding.

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.

CAPTURING DATA

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

his thesis.

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

DNA markers.

“We now have very rich datasets of genetic

information and field performance data

on how these lines perform against FHB,”

Navabi says.

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

Research

Lois Harris

PHD CANDIDATE HARWINDER SINGH

SIDHU (FRONT) COLLECTING DATA IN

THE TEST PLOTS AT THE UNIVERSITY

OF GUELPH.

GENETIC CROSSES

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

disease resistance.

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,”

Navabi says.