Canola fields in summertime sway with lemon yellow flowers stretching far across Canadian horizons. After harvest, the seeds are pressed to yield oil that ends up in many products on our supermarket shelves. The meal that remains after oil extraction becomes animal feed. But the meal has a low protein content and contains high levels of fibre that many animals cannot digest.
Canadian scientists have uncovered tremendous potential for increasing healthy protein content and reducing fibre and anti-nutritional compounds. By modifying the plant's DNA through conventional mutation breeding, a selection process involving the introduction of mutations through the action of physical treatments or mutagenic chemical agents known as conventional mutagenesis, scientists can expand the use of canola meal for livestock, poultry and fish, boosting the value of the crop. Protein in canola seeds can also enrich human nutrition.
A National Research Council of Canada (NRC) team at the Aquatic and Crop Resource Development Research Centre, collaborating with Corteva Agriscience over the past 3 years, has made exciting progress toward that goal. NRC researchers have produced more than 7,000 mutagenized lines in their facilities. Corteva planted all of them in the field, collected the seeds, analyzed them for various traits or phenotypes, and identified more than 50 lines with increased protein, reduced fibre and reductions in anti-nutritional compounds.
"Most of our animal diets are protein-based, so increasing seed protein content is very helpful," says Sateesh Kagale, who's leading the project and is team lead for Advanced Data Analytics in the NRC's Aquatic and Crop Resource Development Research Centre. In addition, the growing global consumption of plant protein supplements and healthy nutritional products along with increasing vegan food habits are driving market demand.
"At the moment, canola meal contains about 37% protein, whereas soybean—another significant crop—has about 46%," he says. "This shows that the potential to increase canola meal's protein content is at least 10 percentage points." Sateesh points out that, so far, the researchers have identified some lines with increased meal protein (up to 7 percentage points). Others are showing as much as a 6-percentage point reduction in fibre content.
Growing the mix
Assessing expressed traits, a process known as phenotyping, in order to improve crop performance is critical in plant breeding for line selection and developing varieties.
The key to creating new varieties of canola is identifying novel native genetic variation or inducing genetic changes through mutagenesis, a method that involves modifying sequences through conventional mutagenesis and finding variants of different genes that will create new phenotypes.
The NRC team used 2 different methods to induce genetic modifications and create different traits: a process that uses a chemical to effect the changes, known as chemical mutagenesis, and physical mutagenesis, which uses radiation.
"Over the past 3 years, we've grown all the lines in multiple field environments to confirm that we've created the right phenotypes," adds Steven King, Research Director of Seed Product Development at Corteva Agriscience. Once a new trait is identified, that line is cross-pollinated with elite Corteva germplasm to incorporate the new trait into the commercial breeding material. "We'll be continuing this process with additional lines over the next few years in different seasons," says Steven. Canola is one of Canada's most important crops, generating some $30 billion in economic activity each year. Any improvements in protein content will, therefore, have a significant impact on the value chain, which involves growers, seed developers, processors and exporters.
But the benefits will stretch far beyond Canada's borders. "If you have a line with higher oil and protein content, farmers can get better prices for their crops," says Paul Wiebe, Director of the NRC's Sustainable Protein Production Program. "And with the growing demand for more protein content, we'll be able to sell the canola to more countries.
"This is one of our larger initiatives for increasing the value of plant-based proteins and their co-products to move them up the value chain," Paul continues. This initiative is supported by the NRC's Sustainable Protein program and aligned with the industry's global innovation cluster, Protein Industries Canada, and with the broader plant-based protein sector.
"We've also established a canola functional genomics platform that could serve as a resource for rapid trait discovery, characterization and optimization and use the knowledge and germplasm to devise other traits as well," adds Sateesh. And that opens up new horizons for feed, food and fuel.