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Genetic Solution Identified for Canola Crop Losses

Flowering canola field (ARS)

Canola field (Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

Biologists at University of Calgary in Canada identified a genetic process in plants similar to the oilseed canola that offers a solution to a problem causing large annual losses of this key cash crop. The team lead by Calgary’s Marcus Samuel, with associates from University of Toronto and University of Bordeaux in France, published its findings last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the university began commercializing its discovery.

The university says in a statement that canola is an important cash crop in Alberta, the province where Calgary is located and the source of more than a third of Canada’s canola harvest. Oil from the plant’s seeds is one of the least-saturated cooking oils, and thus considered heart-healthy. Canola contributes some $15 billion to the Canadian economy.

The seeds that produce canola’s oil, however, are susceptible to damage from early frosts that can lower their quality. Samuel says when temperatures drop to 0 to -2 degrees Celsius, the seeds on mature plants turn from black or brown to green, producing an unpleasant flavor and odor, and thus making the seeds unusable for commerce. This “green seed problem” damages up to 20 percent of the seeds in canola plants, causing annual losses of some $150 million for North American growers.

The green color in the seeds is a result of chlorophyll being added to the seeds. Samuel and colleagues investigated the genetic process where chlorophyll is naturally added or removed in Arabidopsis, a close genetic relative of canola, and a plant whose genetic composition is well documented.

The team’s analysis revealed a genetic process that affects Arabidopsis seed development and helps remove chlorophyll during the maturation of seeds. That process generates a plant hormone called abscisic acid regulating the expression of the gene ABI3 that in turn controls chlorophyll degradation.  In addition, the researchers found that higher expression of AB13 genes in Arabidopsis led to seeds better able to degrade chlorophyll and thus produce the desirable black or brown seeds in cold temperatures.

“Given the similarity of Arabidopsis and canola,” says Samuel, “it would be easy to isolate the same genes from canola and use transgenic technologies — which introduce new genes into organisms — to create varieties that could withstand freezing conditions, yet produce mature brown-black seeds.”

The Calgary researchers are working with the Ottawa biotechnology company Siniazo Biotech to file a patent for the discovery. The university is also seeking commercial partners among companies that develop genetically modified canola; most canola is already modified to resist herbicides.

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