Unique research program targets fusarium head blight

Ali Navabi's winter wheat research. Photo by Cort Egan.

For researchers at the University of Guelph, addressing fusarium head blight — one of wheat’s most nagging diseases — is an agronomic time trip through the geography and history of Canada.

The researchers, led by Ali Navabi, have gone back to the 1880s through to the present to look at the genetic diversity of 450 unique historic and modern winter wheat samples, gathered from multiple locations across the country. They call this collection the Canadian Winter Wheat Diversity Panel.

This year, as a nod to Canada’s sesquicentennial, program participants grew multiple plots from each sample in different field trials at the Elora Research Station to look for agronomic traits, including the response to fusarium head blight.

The researchers’ goal is to find wheat varieties with genes that offer the most natural resistance to head blight. They are also working towards identifying the genes that result in higher levels of resistance, and developing tools for breeding programs to be able to more effectively select for genetic resistance.

Ali Navabi and PhD candidate Harwinder Singh Sidhu are pictured here making crosses in a growth room at the University of Guelph. Photo courtesy of Ali Navabi.

Navabi and his lab have tested the collection for 90,000 DNA markers, small pieces of DNA with known location that are used in plant breeding and genetics research to study variation. That process is called genotyping.

His lab will be using this information, along with the response of wheat lines against fusarium observed in the field, to be able to associate selected DNA markers with greater resistance.

“Identifying these genes can help with fusarium-resistant variety selection, and the development of new varieties with greater natural resistance,” says Navabi, who holds the Grain Farmers of Ontario Professorship in Wheat Breeding at the university.

Mitra Serajazari, research associate with the University of Guelph wheat breeding program, is evaluating wheat for resistance against fusarium head blight. Photo courtesy of Ali Navabi.

The wheat breeding program is committed to developing novel wheat and barley varieties with improved agronomics adapted to southwestern Ontario, understanding the genetics and genomics of important wheat characteristics, and training highly qualified personnel.

Research team members have been drawn from a wide array of backgrounds and nationalities, reflecting Canada’s diversity and multiculturalism. In fact, the 15 participants in Navabi’s lab collectively speak 13 different native languages other than English.

But they all have a common purpose – that is, to ultimately improve profitability and sustainability for Ontario wheat producers. Wheat grows on about one million acres of farmland in the province, with the overwhelming majority being winter wheat. Soft-red winter wheat represents about 90 percent of the wheat grown here.

“Winter wheat is important in Ontario, as part of a healthy cropping system,” says Navabi. “It improves nutrient use efficiency, reduces erosion and run off and serves as a cover crop. It’s not just another cash crop.”

University of Guelph plant agriculture graduate student Andy Chen stands in the middle of the Canadian Winter Wheat Diversity Panel, at the Elora Research Station. Photo courtesy of Ali Navabi.

Navabi’s lab closely collaborates with the wheat team at the University of Saskatchewan, where researchers are trying to better understand the highly complex wheat genome. To put it into context, the wheat genome consists of about five times more DNA than that in the human genome.

Many crop research projects end in the fall, after harvest. But not winter wheat research. Through to next spring, the research team will also be assessing the many samples at Elora for winter hardiness, an important element in the crop’s sustainability.

Support for this research has been received from SeCan, the Grain Farmers of Ontario, Agriculture Adaptation Council, Genome Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.


Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy


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