University of Saskatchewan secures $ 37.2 million grant for crop design tools

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The University of Saskatchewan has won a $ 37.2 million research grant to create technological tools that could change the way plant breeding is done around the world.

The university’s goal is for growers around the world to digitally design the crops that best meet their needs by tapping into new universally available databases.

Ideally, this will help them feed the burgeoning world population.

“It’s a great scientific project. No one has ever done this before, ”said Maurice Moloney, executive director of the university’s Global Institute for Food Security.

Over the next seven years, biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and others will build the Phenotyping and Imaging Research Center.

For those in need of a refresher in biology in high school, the ‘phenotype’ refers to a physical characteristic – the shape of a leaf, its height, the appearance of its roots or its resistance to drought, for example. .

Researchers have started to sequence the genomes of crop varieties like wheat, barley, rice, canola and corn, Moloney said. Unfortunately, we are not comfortable reading DNA and are just starting to learn which genes control the attributes of a plant.

However, if programmers could develop computer algorithms to identify characteristics of plants, breeders could cross-reference a database of images with a collection of genetic codes. Just as facial recognition software can pick a suspect from tens of thousands of photographs, the program would analyze the data to determine which genes make a crop resistant to late blight or will produce more berries.

“By using this kind of computing power, we will effectively change the way plant breeding is done,” Moloney said.

Although growers select the best characteristics of a crop from the start of farming, it comes down to manually examining the plants and choosing which ones to breed. Machines, on the other hand, can quickly sift through hundreds of thousands of images and DNA sequences.

Computers can also predict which plants to grow to get the variety you want in the shortest possible time, Moloney said.

Funding for the project comes from the Canada First Excellence Research Fund (CFERF) and is the largest federal research grant the university has ever received.

In 2014, the Conservative government said it would spend $ 1.5 billion over seven years on projects that strengthen university strengths, attract talent to Canada, and help solve global economic and social problems.

A total of $ 350 million was up for grabs in the first round of grants. Of the 43 universities that applied, five were chosen – including the U of S. The government chose the U of S project because of its potential to help feed the 9.6 billion people who are expected. inhabit the planet by 2050. world, everyone is focusing on the sustainability and long-term security of our food supply, ”Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said on Tuesday.

The world needs plants that can withstand floods and droughts and adapt to new pests, Ritz said.

In light of global concerns about genetically modified organisms and ‘frankenfoods’, about a fifth of research money will be spent on the social sciences to study some of the attitudes, legal implications and public policy issues raised by this research. technology.

The U of S will seek more grants from CFERF, said Karen Chad, vice president of research, adding that she had an eye on federal funding for projects in the area of ​​global water security. and prevention of infectious diseases.

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