PLANT SCIENCE SIMPLIFIED
WHEAT BREEDER CURTIS POZNIAK DEMYSTIFIES ADVANCES IN BREEDING TECHNOLOGY
BY ELLEN COTTEE • PHOTOS BY ELECTRIC UMBRELLA PHOTOGRAPHY
Internationally known for his work, Curtis Pozniak is a wheat breeder and professor at the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre. His busy schedule incorporates field work, tours, multiple global research projects as well as speaking engagements. Pozniak recently took time out from his work to talk with GrainsWest about the latest scientific advancements in variety creation.
GrainsWest: How did you get involved in wheat breeding?
Curtis Pozniak: I grew up on a family farm in Rama, SK, so I’ve always been interested in agriculture and plants. I enrolled in an undergraduate degree at the University of Saskatchewan and during the summer months I had the opportunity to work with really good companies and breeding programs. That really spurred my interest in plant breeding.
It was in the later part of my undergraduate training that I met professor Pierre Hucl from the Crop Development Centre (CDC) and he had a graduate student position open. I was fortunate to work with him and do a PhD in plant breeding. During my studies, I had the opportunity to work in the durum program at the CDC. It was perfect having a graduate position and good mentors to push me into plant breeding.
GW: Would you say agriculture and plant breeding are your first true loves?
CP: You bet—particularly the plant breeding aspect of my job. Our group at the CDC also has a strong research program looking at genetics of wheat, but I love the summer when we’re out in the fields making selections and looking at the vast genetic diversity available to us as breeders. Trying to harness that diversity into a commercial variety that will benefit our farmers is really exciting.
GW: You and others have noted genomic research in wheat lags behind that of other crops. Have advances in technology helped wheat catch up?
CP: I like to think 2018 was the year of the wheat genome. Looking back, the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium started sequencing wheat in a time when the technology was much more complicated than it is now. Sequencing technology and computational biology—using computer algorithms to pull together that data in a meaningful way—really advanced during that time.
GW: What do the advances in computational biology—using biological data to create algorithms—mean for wheat breeding?
CP: The wheat genome is about 16 billion base pairs—it’s five times larger than the human genome, which creates some complexities for data analysis. As well, the wheat genome is polyploid, which means it has three duplicated genomes that look very similar to one another. When you’re assembling the complete genome sequence into a final product you have to have the computational support to be able to tease out each of these sub-genomes independently of one another. The sequencing technology and the computational biology to analyze this complex genome has really exploded over the past several years. Given these advances, our own group is leading a new initiative called the 10+ Genomes Project. The aim of that work is to sequence multiple wheat cultivars to begin to understand what makes them different at the genetic level.
GW: Tell us more about the 10+ Wheat Genomes Project, it sounds fascinating.
CP: The project is designed to generate multiple genome sequences—sort of
the blueprint of varieties of wheat from major breeding programs globally. We can compare them to understand how they are different and associate those differences with agronomic performance. It’s quite an exciting time in wheat genomics research. We now have the tools to be able to do this, and it was probably impossible even 10 years ago.
Of course, that’s just the beginning. There’s a tremendous amount of work to do to understand how these genetic differences relate to function. That is, how specific genes associate with agronomic performance, disease resistance and end-use quality and nutrition. That’s the only way it becomes useful for breeders.
GW: What are the issues that arise when new technology is implemented in breeding programs?
CP: For example, with CRISPR, there is excitement in the research community about utilizing this technology and how it might be able to improve plant breeding. [For more on this gene-editing technology, see page 36.] But as breeders, we always have to be sensitive to regulatory framework around new technology, but also the demands and concerns of our customers. We do not want to implement technologies that could potentially harm our international reputation for [producing] a high-quality product. That is obviously not science-based, but we need to be sensitive to this reality. We have to recognize that these technologies hold great promise, but the regulatory framework and customer acceptance will drive implementation of these tools to improve breeding efficiency.
GW: Predictive breeding is another tactic you’ve been using. How does it work?
CP: If you think about plant breeding, it’s really a numbers game. You make a cross between two parents and you have a bunch of progeny you have to sort through to find those that have the potential to become a variety. Anything that you can do to improve the efficiency of that process—to find that needle in the haystack—is worthwhile. Some of the research we are doing at the CDC relates to the application of genomics to predictive breeding, which is using genotypic information in the progeny, analyzing their DNA and from that information predicting what might happen in the field. Instead of testing it all in the field, the idea is to only put material into the field that the prediction suggests would be the best performers.
It’s not perfect. Many of the important traits we target in breeding programs like yield or resistance to Fusarium head blight are very complex genetically. In addition, the environment the plant is growing in impacts the performance and the phenotype we see in the field. However, we are designing strategies to implement predictive breeding despite these hurdles.
GW: What are some of the other technologies you’re using?
CP: Some of the technology we are interested in using relates to digital phenotyping. This can mean using sophisticated cameras attached to drones, for example, to measure things we don’t necessarily see with our eyes. Using these cameras, we can scan our breeding material on a weekly basis and collect digital information and then tease apart that digital information to test its predictive power in field performance. Sometimes we can only visit our nurseries a handful of times over the growing season, but with drone technology we can conduct weekly measurements over the growing season and collectively use that information.
GW: How important is funding for Canadian wheat breeding programs?
CP: Relative to other major crops like corn, soybean and cotton, there isn’t as much investment in wheat globally. At an international level, there’s certainly a push to increase funding from governments, producers and the private sector. Staying competitive takes investment. In Canada, most wheat breeding is done in the public sector. In the last couple years there has been increased investment by the private sector in wheat breeding. At a funding level, that represents an increase in the amount of financial and people resources that are going into wheat breeding and research. That can only improve the competitiveness of the crop.
One thing that is unique in Canada is this public and private sector co-existence. In other countries where the private sector has engaged in wheat breeding, the public sector has decreased its investment. The general consensus is that it’s probably not good for the crop because it’s still important that we have public sector engagement in wheat breeding and research to make sure that the crop remains competitive.