Agriculture This Week: Genome mapping major ag breakthrough

The farm sector should be smiling over the prospect of what a recent science accomplishment could mean.

It was recently reported at www.producer.comthat “on Aug. 10, University of Saskatchewan and Agriculture Canada researchers said they had decoded the full genome of the black mustard plant. Black mustard is grown in India and other countries in South Asia. It’s closely related to the mustard and canola grown in Western Canada.”

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There are two reasons this is big news. First is the accomplishment itself, and how cracking one genome could quicken work on others.

And, secondly, is how in this case black mustard is a close relative of canola, which could hasten the process of genome mapping in a key Canadian Prairie crop.

So why is genome mapping such a major breakthrough?

Well the real benefit comes from another science; gene editing.

Gene editing allows scientists to delete genes from a plant’s genome or add genes from the same family of plants to achieve a desired crop trait.

So think of the issues in canola, from blackleg to sclerotinia, then think of borrowing a resistant gene from a cousin plant and inserting it into canola to boost resistance. The new ‘variety’ would offer much to the farm sector.

The question of course, for scientists is which gene do they need to delete, or add?

In the same Western Producer article Richard Cuthbert, a wheat breeder with Agriculture Canada in Swift Current noted “in bread wheat there’s 120,000 genes, roughly.”

What science has lacked is a map they can follow in identifying the gene they seek.

That is where genome mapping comes in, and the black mustard success is exciting as a precursor to what can come next.

The better the mapping, the more easily, at least in theory, science can follow that map to the destination they seek. Then through gene transfer the science community can look at addressing some of the issues facing production, in particular in terms of disease and fungus resistance.

However, such science can go to more places than disease resistance.

It may be possible to increase drought resistance, increase tolerance for saline soils, or for the plant to do a better job of nutrient absorption. It all comes down to discovering genes that make a difference, and transferring within a plant family.

Longer term transfer from unrelated crops; say alfalfa to canola, may be possible. Imagine a nitrogen fixing canola and what that would mean to the farm sector.

But the transfer technology has needed a map to be efficient, and that appears to be happening which is big news for agriculture.

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