Robert Duncan is using a mix of molecular science and in-the-field smarts to create new varieties of canola and rapeseed with higher oil and meal protein content, significantly boosting the value of those crops.
“The main product of these crops is oil,” explains Duncan, who is an assistant professor and plant breeder at the University of Manitoba. “Meal is considered a by-product by many.” Using conventional breeding techniques of selection and crossing, he aims to boost oil yield by about 2.5 percent and, at the same time, augment the protein content of the meal left over after the seeds are crushed for oil, which increases its value and shifts it from a disregarded by-product to a valuable animal feed source. Seed companies, farmers and rural communities involved in the Canadian canola industry — worth $19.3 billion annually — all benefit. “If I can increase the meal value and improve the yield of oil, that bump in those traits has a massive economic bump-up,” says Duncan.
The thirty-five-year-old Canadian researcher, who grew up near Miami, Man., on an oil seed and cereal crop farm, is a highly regarded multi-disciplinarian, whose work spans agronomy, plant pathology, breeding and genetics. He earned his PhD at the University of California at Davis, and in 2009, as an assistant professor at Texas A & M University, he was the state’s specialist for small grains and oilseeds, and he worked on the wheat breeding program, doing applied research and presenting the information directly to farmers. “We had lots of field days,” he says. “For a scientist, there is no bigger joy or satisfaction than seeing your variety growing across a field and hearing farmers comment on how well it did.” Duncan returned to his alma mater, the University of Manitoba, in 2012, where he divides his time between the classroom, lab, greenhouses and farm fields.
New funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund will acquire a seeder for Duncan and his team capable of planting small-scale plots and nursery rows. The planter will be equipped with GPS and auto-tripping which can be programmed to release seed at precise locations for more efficient planting and more accurate plot size. Duncan will also obtain two other machines, one of which measures whole seeds for oil, protein, amino acid and chlorophyll content. “It allows us to analyze whole seeds in a non-destructive manner, and then we get the seeds back for planting.”
Duncan uses genomics techniques to identify molecular markers for desirable traits like high oil content in the DNA of different varieties of canola and rapeseed, and the third machine he will obtain with the new funding from the CFI, a thermocycler, is instrumental in this work. By breeding for those particular traits his work will ultimately result in new varieties, which he expects to be available in five to ten years.
But like most agricultural science, it can’t all be done from the relative comfort of a lab, says Duncan. “Molecular and genomics work is what is most often funded, and students see it as sexy,” he says. “But that information is of little use without observable characteristics to correlate it with. I also need people who can get their boots and hands dirty and pick out which breeding lines are better. That skill can only be learned hands-on, in the field.”
dee Hobsbawn-Smith is a poet and freelance writer based west of Saskatoon.