Farm Focus


Alberta scientists have figured out how to beat stem rot in canola thanks to some help from a mouse.

University of Alberta biochemist Nat Kav announced this week that he and his team had created transgenic canola that could resist Sclerotina, a fungal disease in canola known as stem rot. The plants use genes from a mouse to fight off this and two other common diseases.

Plants don’t normally produce antibodies, Kav says, but if they did, they could resist disease better. His team infected a mouse with Sclerotina, causing it to make antibodies. They figured out which gene produced those antibodies, cloned it, and stuck it into canola plants.

“DNA from plants or animals or microbes is essentially the same,” Kav says, so you can stick it into anything you want. It doesn’t always do what you want afterward, but it did in this case: their canola plants now produce anti-fungal antibodies and are highly resistant to stem rot. “It doesn’t run, and it doesn’t have a tail,” he adds.

Stem rot is an occasional problem for canola farmers in wet areas of Alberta, says Ward Toma, general manager of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, which works closely with Kav. “There’s very little genetic resistance out there,” he says, and it can devastate a farm’s crop.

Kav also found that his plants could fight off blackleg and black spot, two other fungal diseases that are widespread in the province. China recently restricted Canadian canola to just a few of its ports to keep blackleg out of its borders.

Kav says his canola is still years away from market and has yet to undergo field tests. He also wants to see if it can resist clubroot — another canola disease making the rounds in Alberta.

Growers have a big gap to fill before they can start selling their crops for use in biomaterials, says a provincial expert.

John Wolodko of Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures was one of several speakers at a biomaterials meeting at the River Cree Resort & Casino last week. About 25 people attended.

The talk was the third in a series of meetings on biomaterials, says Trevor Kloeck, head of Alberta Agriculture’s biomaterial development program, which were held to meet rising interest in the subject.

European carmakers have been using biomaterials for years, Wolodko says, reinforcing plastics and fibreglass with wheat, barley, flax and hemp. These natural materials help make renewable, lighter, stronger and cheaper plastics and offer farmers a new market for their crops.

But it’s a market that’s stalled in Alberta. “If a corporation is interested in using biofibres in their production,” Wolodko says, “the big challenge is finding someone that can supply them.”

There are plenty of farmers with crops to sell, but no facilities available to shred and mill those crops into a useable form. “That middleman, that processing facility, doesn’t exist.”

Alberta farmers shouldn’t be jumping onto the biomaterials wagon just yet, he says. “It’s business as usual.” The province’s $15-million Biomaterials Development Centre is working on pilot processors in Mill Woods and Vegreville that should start the biomaterials industry rolling.

The province plans to hold another round of talks this fall, Kloeck says. For more, call 780-427-2347.


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