Wheat School: What it takes to keep Canada at the cutting edge of wheat breeding


In any industry, you can go backwards by merely standing still. In research, even something as traditional as wheat research, the same is true. You have to keep moving forward or other players will pass you and your innovations will be obsolete before they even get out of the laboratory.

Luckily for Canadian farmers, there are people like John Laurie, research scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, at Lethbridge, Alta. Laurie understands this and is working hard to keep Canada’s wheat research community at the cutting edge. RealAgriculture’s Dale Leftwich caught up with Laurie in the greenhouses at AAFC Lethbridge where they had a chance to chat about what “cutting edge” means today.

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Laurie, who has himself worked mostly outside of Canada, points out that Canada is playing catch up, to a certain extent.  “A lot of the advancements in genomics and molecular biology are being done outside of Canada, especially in the U.S. and Europe. I worked with some of those people and I know some of that technology so I’m bringing that back here to Canada, to Lethbridge.”

One of the biggest problems with plant breeding is that it just takes time to grow things. Because of this, research scientists are always trying to find ways to shorten the length of time it takes to bring new varieties to the market place. This is one of the reasons that Laurie’s title is ‘enabling technologies.’ The kind of tools he is helping to develop save time, save money, and bring beneficial products to farmers when they really need them.

Laurie uses the haploid technology he is working on as an example of the kind of tools that speed up the process. “Without using this double haploid technology breeders have to backcross, backcross, backcross and it can take as many as ten generations to get genetically pure material through crossing whereas here, … from immature pollen, the microspores, it’s done within one to two generations.”

One of the truly fascinating results of the research is the more they understand how nature works, the more they see that nature has already pioneered many of cutting edge processes they are working on. What once seemed like science fiction, is now seen to be science fact, that just needs to be understood more fully.

Laurie points to a corn plant on the table beside him that is less than a metre in height. “We are really at the dawn of the genomics era now that we have sequenced the genomes for barley and wheat and corn and other species and now many different diverse lines within those species, we’re starting to see how nature has essentially shuffled things around to reprogram the plant to make it like this (corn plant).”

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