Global
Chinese scientists have developed a nanomaterial to control potato sprouts and reduce the poisonous substance in potatoes, providing a new method for potato storage.

Stored potatoes usually sprout rapidly, at the same time producing a significant amount of solanine, a toxic substance which endangers human health. Potato sprouts can be controlled using various techniques such as temperature control, irradiation and use of chemical inhibitors.

Scientists from Hefei Institute of Physical Science under Chinese Academy of Sciences developed a new nanomaterial called hydrophobic nano silica that can be used to inhibit the growth of potato sprouts. When potatoes are immersed in the solution of the material, a hydrophobic coating is created on the surface of the potatoes, effectively inhibiting potato sprouts and decreasing solanine. | READ MORE
Published in Research
Ontario’s horticultural industry has launched a digital campaign to demonstrate public support for a long-running program that allows growers affected by a chronic labour shortage to hire workers from Mexico and the Caribbean on a seasonal basis.

The Fairness for Growers campaign uses a web portal to provide information about the benefits of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and to help consumers to directly email their Members of Parliament, voicing support for the program and the importance of continued access to fresh, local food.

The campaign was initiated in May. As of June, 1,400 Canadians had used the portal to send letters of support for SAWP to their MPs.

The labour program was established in 1966 to respond to a severe shortage of domestic agricultural workers. It continues to serve the same role 52 years later, enabling Ontario farmers to stay in business.

This year, more than 18,000 workers from Mexico and the Caribbean are expected to fill vacancies on a seasonal basis — up to a maximum of eight months — at approximately 1,450 Ontario farms.

But the federal government may change that. Federal regulators who oversee the program are implementing more and more regulations, and some growers are concerned about the program’s future.

These changes could threaten the livelihoods of thousands of farmers, making it harder for local growers to get the workers they need and operate effectively.

They could also significantly reduce access to local fruits and vegetables on store shelves, put Canadian jobs at risk and hurt thousands of seasonal workers who want these jobs to provide a better standard of living for the families.

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program is a “Canadians first” program, which means supplementary seasonal farm labour is hired from partner countries only if farmers cannot find Canadians willing to take the same jobs.

It’s estimated that at least two jobs for Canadians are created in the agri-food industry for every seasonal worker employed through SAWP at Ontario farms.

Without the program most Ontario farmers simply couldn’t continue to grow fruits and vegetables. Some would move into less labour-intensive crops, while others would abandon agriculture altogether.

Recent labour market research by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council cited the program as a key reason Ontario’s horticulture industry is able to generate $5.4 billion in economic activity and approximately 34,280 jobs.

A severe shortage of domestic workers is costing Canadian farms approximately $1.5 billion per year and hurting Canada’s overall economic competitiveness, according to research by the Conference Board of Canada.

For more information, visit www.fairnessforgrowers.ca

Published in Provinces
It is well known that vegetables are good for people but they could also be the key to making stronger and greener buildings.

Engineers at Lancaster University are working with industrial partners at Cellucomp Ltd. UK to research how concrete mixtures can be strengthened and made more environmentally friendly by adding ‘nano platelets’ extracted from the fibres of root vegetables.

The work, which is being supported with £195,000 by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 funding, will build on findings from early tests that have demonstrated that concrete mixtures including nano platelets from sugar beet or carrot significantly improve the mechanical properties of concrete.

These vegetable-composite concretes were also found to out-perform all commercially available cement additives, such as graphene and carbon nanotubes and at a much lower cost.

The root vegetable nano platelets work both to increase the amount of calcium silicate hydrate – the main substance that controls the performance of concrete, and stop any cracks that appear in the concrete.

By increasing the performance of concrete, smaller quantities are needed in construction.

The construction industry is urgently seeking ways in which to curb its carbon emissions. The production of ordinary Portland cement, one of the main ingredients for concrete, is very carbon intensive – its production accounts for eight per cent of total global CO2 emissions. This is forecast to double in the next 30 years due to rising demand.

The proof-of-concept studies showed that adding the root vegetable nano platelets resulted in a saving of 40kg of ordinary Portland cement per cubic metre of concrete – which gives a saving of 40kg of CO2 for the same volume. This is because the greater strength of the root vegetable mixture means smaller sections of concrete are required in buildings.

Professor Mohamed Saafi from Lancaster University’s Engineering Department and lead researcher, believes root vegetable concrete vegetables could go a long way to reducing construction carbon emissions.

He said: “These novel cement nanocomposites are made by combining ordinary Portland cement with nano platelets extracted from waste root vegetables taken from the food industry.

“The composites are not only superior to current cement products in terms of mechanical and microstructure properties, but also use smaller amounts of cement. This significantly reduces both the energy consumption and CO2 emissions associated with cement manufacturing.”

The vegetable-based cementitious composites were also found to have a denser microstructure, which is important to prevent corrosion and increasing the lifespan of the materials.

The research project is also looking at adding very thin sheets made from vegetable nano platelets to existing concrete structures to reinforce their strength. The researchers believe that the vegetable nanofibre-based sheets will out-perform existing alternatives, such as carbon fibre. This is partly because concrete beams reinforced with the sheets will be able to bend more, which would help deflect potentially damaging forces.

The two-year research project will investigate the science behind the results of the proof-of-concept studies to gain a fuller understanding of how the vegetable nano platelet fibres enhance the concrete mix. The researchers will also seek to optimise the concrete performance to help produce a mixture that can be used in the construction industry.

Cellucomp Ltd already uses fibres from root vegetables to manufacture more durable paints.

Dr Eric Whale from Cellucomp Ltd said: “We are excited to be continuing our collaboration with Professor Saafi and developing new applications for our materials, where we can bring environmental and performance benefits.”
Published in Vegetables
E.W. Gaze Seeds Co. and Phytocultures Ltd. are working together to bring new types of potatoes to Newfoundland and Labrador from South America.

E.W. Gaze Seeds Co. was founded in Newfoundland in 1925. It specializes in selling “high-quality vegetable and flower seeds,” according to the company’s website.

“It was actually (Phytocultures) that reached out to us originally to try out the new potato seeds they have been working on for a few years,” said Jackson McLean, assistant manager of E.W. Gaze Seeds Co. “We got them to send us in a bunch of samples that we could give out to our customers, which I thought was a great idea ... to test them out because they have never been grown here before.” | READ MORE
Published in Vegetables
An escalating trade fight between the United States and Mexico may affect B.C. apple growers in the Okanagan, experts say.

Mexico is the biggest customer of Washington state apples, buying up to $250 million's worth each year.

But Mexico now wants to slap a 20 per cent tariff on U.S. farm goods including apples in response to the Trump administration's tariffs on steel and aluminum. | READ MORE 
Published in Federal
A potato variety genetically engineered to resist potato blight can help reduce the use of chemical fungicides by up to 90 per cent, according to a new study - drastically reducing the environmental impact of potato farming.

Potato blight, caused by a water mould called Phytophthora infestans, can rapidly obliterate potato crops, and is one of the biggest problems in potato farming. 

Working together, scientists from Wageningen University & Research and Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority, have developed a two-pronged approach: a genetically modified potato, along with a new pest management strategy, that combine for healthy crops with minimal fungicide use. | READ MORE
Published in Insects

Potato is the third most important crop in human nutrition, after wheat and rice. Knowing and improving its agronomic, nutritional and industrial aspects is essential and in this task a group of researchers specialized in biotechnology of the INTA Balcarce is focused.

Recently, with a trajectory more than 7 years in gene editing technologies, they were able to confirm that the DNA sequence had been modified, while they hope to corroborate the shutdown of the gene that causes enzymatic browning in potatoes ( Solanum tuberosum L. ).

When applying this technique, the team led by Feingold focused on a polyphenol oxidase gene, whose enzyme causes browning in tubers when they are cut and exposed to air. | For the full story, CLICK HERE.

Published in Research
Farmers across Ontario are welcoming the return of thousands of seasonal labourers who help the province’s fruit and vegetable industry thrive.

Approximately 18,000 workers from Mexico and the Caribbean are expected to be placed at Ontario farms this growing season as a supplement to local labour under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Approximately 1,450 farms will benefit from the program this year.

The program was established in 1966 to respond to a severe shortage of domestic agricultural workers. It continues to serve the same role 52 years later, enabling Ontario farmers to stay in business.

“Men and women from overseas have been helping Ontario farmers solve a critical shortage of agricultural workers for more than half a century,” says Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.), which administers the program. “At the same time, they’ve helped lift themselves and their families out of a punishing cycle of poverty in their home countries.”

SAWP is a “Canadians first” program, which means supplementary seasonal farm labour is hired from partner countries only if farmers cannot find domestic workers willing to take the same jobs.

Farmers who rely on the program to meet their labour needs do hire Canadians. The challenge is that not enough domestic workers — Canadians who may live in the rural areas where these farms are located — are interested in taking these positions, often because they are seasonal in nature.

Recent labour market research by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council cited SAWP as a key reason our horticultural industry is thriving.

In Ontario, the program plays a crucial role in helping the industry generate $5.4 billion in economic activity and approximately 34,280 jobs.

“If we want to continue having access to high-quality, fresh, local produce in Ontario, we need the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program to continue connecting farmers with the workers they need,” Forth says.

The vast majority of men and women who come to Ontario through SAWP believe the benefits of the program far outweigh any challenges or drawbacks, such as being away from their families for part of the year on a temporary basis.

Proof of this can be seen in the large number of workers who speak positively about the program and voluntarily return year after year — some of them to the same employers for decades. Approximately 85 per cent of the workers opt to return on repeat contracts in an average year.

Seasonal workers can earn as much as 10 times or more working here than they could in their own countries, if they fortunate enough to find employment. This income allows the workers to improve the standard of living of their families, educate their children and buy and operate businesses and farms at home.

Of the many different temporary worker programs in Canada, SAWP is the only one that offers 24-hour a day assistance to workers directly with people from their home countries. Each country participating in the program maintains a liaison service or consular office in Ontario to help look after the general welfare of agricultural workers and help them navigate any issues or complications they may face while working here.

For more information about Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, visit: www.farmsontario.ca.
Published in Profiles
Developed by Biobest, Flying Doctors - bumblebees that pollinate flowers while at the same time delivering a ‘medicine’ to the plant - have been available since 2013. Highly innovative and efficient, these bumblebees kill two birds with one stone.

Fruit grower Bart Van Parijs, from Oeselgem, Belgium, has conducted a trial in open field-grown raspberries using the biofungicide Prestop 4B as the ‘medicine’ against Botrytis.

Bart first heard about this technique at a seminar a few years ago. “With most of the results relating to protected crops I was curious to know what the effects would be in open field raspberry crops”, explains Bart Van Parijs, who owns the 12-hectare biological fruit company, Purfruit in Oeselgem. This enterprising operation grows up to 15 species of fruit, has a pick your own fruit farm, a terrace and a shop. It also regularly welcomes groups and classes.

Protection against Botrytis
A biological grower as Bart Van Parijs cannot use any chemical products to protect their crops against Botrytis − which causes fruit to rot. As the fungus remains latent during flowering, the damage only becomes visible during harvest or storage.

The biofungicide Prestop 4B contains the beneficial fungus Gliocladium catenulatum J1446. Using Flying Doctors, the bumblebees continuously carry the biofungicide to the flowers during pollination, affording protection against Botrytis and preventing the fruit from being harmed.

Beneficial fungus present
Biobest deployed the Flying Doctors with Prestop 4B in the raspberry crops in spring. At the end of May, flowers were collected from plots that were, and others that were not, pollinated by Flying Doctors.

The flowers were examined for the presence of Gliocladium. The beneficial fungus was found in both plots. The fact that a certain percentage of Gliocladium was also found on the untreated crop is due to the distance between the plots. Since they were not far apart, some bumblebees also pollinated the plot that did not receive any treatment. Still, the plot treated by Flying Doctors showed a much higher presence of Gliocladium – namely 80 per cent.

No fruit rot after storage
During harvest in early July, Biobest performed a new trial: raspberries from plots that were and others that were not pollinated were harvested and stored at a temperature of 10°C.

Biobest researcher Soraya França explained, “After two weeks there was no sign of fruit rot in the raspberries treated by Flying Doctors. On the other hand, 30 per cent of the raspberries from the untreated area were affected.

Extended shelf life is positive
Commenting on the results, Bart Van Parijs said, “the shelf life of raspberries is limited, especially in humid periods. Thanks to Flying Doctors with Prestop 4B, raspberries can be kept longer in the fridge, which is reassuring. During humid periods, I normally advise my fruit garden customers to consume the fruit they have picked the next day at the latest. This year I could confidently say that the berries could be kept a few days before being eaten. I will be using Flying Doctors again this year.”
Published in Fruit
Three Alberta companies and one association participated in the Seed Potato Trade Mission to Thailand from November 19 to 27, 2017. The Companies included Haarsma Farms, Parkland Seed Potatoes, Sunnycrest Seed Potatoes, and the Potato Growers of Alberta.

Participants met with importers, distributors, and potential customers in Bangkok, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, Thailand. They also toured local potato farm operations.

“This was the first market development mission focused on seed potato suppliers to Thailand since Alberta was granted market access last year,” says Rachel Luo, senior trade and relations officer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. “Alberta seed potato companies pushed to make this mission a reality, and all the companies expect to generate new sales.”

“We expect to be exporting Alberta seed potatoes by 2019 starting with a trial order,” says Kirby Sawatzky with Parkland Seed Potatoes. “We made excellent connections with two major seed potato importers.”

The Alberta delegation met with PepsiCo and toured its potato chip factory and contracted farm. The group also met with BJC Foods and toured its storage facilities and contracted potato farm. The Thai importers made it clear that the opportunities for Alberta seed potatoes were positive due to the hearty nature of Alberta’s seed potato varieties.

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry collaborated with the Canadian Embassy in Thailand to organize this mission to Thailand.

For more information on the South East Asia market, contact Rachel Luo, senior trade and relations officer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry at 780-422-7102.
Published in Provinces
For the first time, scientists have improved how a crop uses water by 25 per cent without compromising yield by altering the expression of one gene that is found in all plants, as reported in Nature Communications.

The international team increased the levels of a photosynthetic protein (PsbS) to conserve water by tricking plants into partially closing their stomata, the microscopic pores in the leaf that allow water to escape. Stomata are the gatekeepers to plants: When open, carbon dioxide enters the plant to fuel photosynthesis, but water is allowed to escape through the process of transpiration. | READ MORE
Published in Research
February 15, 2018 – Potatoes used for crisps and chips are usually stored at eight degrees – a temperature high enough to prevent starch from breaking down into glucose and fructose. To slow sprouting, potato producers often use a suppressant like chlorpropham, a chemical the European Union (EU) is looking to phase out due to health concerns.

Hoping to find an alternative to chemical sprout suppressors, the EU-funded GENSPI (Genomic Selection for Potato Improvement) project has developed a genetic marker system to identify plants that display a resistance to glucose and fructose formation. Their tubers can be stored at three or four degrees, low enough to keep sprout growth at bay for very long periods.

“Glucose and fructose formed during cold storage can cause very dark fry colours, leaving potato crisps and chips with an unacceptably bitter taste. The sugars can also cause a build-up of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen,” says Dan Milbourne, GENSPI project coordinator.

GENSPI developed new genomic selection breeding methodologies that will allow potato breeders to select the varieties of potato that seem to be resistant to sweetening at low temperatures.

To do this, researchers gathered a large collection of potato plants and fried thousands of tubers – the equivalent to 10,000 bags of potato crisps – that had been held in different storage conditions. They then measured their colour once fried and drew the links between fry colour and the genetic variation of the plant.

“Because the fry colour is controlled by many genes the best approach was to scan the genome for variation at many sites to find correlations between colour and genetic variation,” explains Milbourne.

Researchers then used the latest techniques in genome sequences – known as next generation sequencing – to identify over 100,000 regions across the genome where the DNA sequence varied among the plants. They combined data on variation on the potato phenotype and genome to build statistical models that could predict fry colour from DNA sequencing information.

“From the 100,000 regions showing genetic variation between the breeding lines, we were able to identify a smaller number of DNA markers that gave us a good ability to predict fry colour,” says Stephen Byrne, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow who carried out the research. “This means we can develop an inexpensive DNA-based test to predict fry colour that can be applied to tens of thousands of plants in a potato breeding program.”

Traditionally, potato breeders inter-cross plant varieties to produce up to 100,000 seedlings, and then eliminate poorly performing plant types over a period of 10 years. Varieties that are resistant to glucose and fructose formation can only be identified at the end of this time, meaning that many potential varieties have already been eliminated from the breeding process. 

GENSPI carried out its research in collaboration with a commercial potato breeding program led by Denis Griffin. Its newly-developed technique allows resistant plants to be identified early in the 10-year breeding program. The team hopes the project will lead to the release of one or more varieties that give an excellent fry colour even at low-temperature storage, avoiding chemical sprout suppressants.

“We hope to see these varieties released in the next five years,” concludes Griffin.
Published in Research
January 2, 2018 – The science behind the home-pregnancy test is now being trialled to detect the presence of diseases that can devastate fields of vegetable crops, including Brussels sprouts.

Current trials are underway to help protect crops of Brassicas – sprouts, broccoli, cabbage – and onions. Diseases including ring spot, light leaf spot and downy mildew are being monitored.

Ring spot in Brassicas is a foliar disease, which if not treated can lead to the loss of 30 per cent of crop.

The test, known as a lateral flow device (LFD), picks up the presence of infective spores carried in the air around crops in the field. Used alongside weather data, test results could indicate how likely a disease is to develop, allowing growers to decide if crop protection methods are needed or not.

Further development work is underway, so growers can gain immediate results, without needing to send samples to laboratories for further testing. The project is the result of an industry partnership between growers, AHDB Horticulture, Warwickshire College and Mololgic Ltd.

“When it’s fully developed, this simple low-cost tool, allowing growers to test whether there is a risk of diseases developing on their crops, will help prevent significant financial losses and reduce the need to use conventional methods to protect their crops,” said Cathryn Lambourne, senior scientist with AHDB. “Over the last four years, we’ve been developing the lateral flow device test, demonstrating how simple and effective it is, to give growers the confidence to rely on the results and make appropriate decisions for their business.”

“This could be a big game changer for growers,” added Carl Sharp, an agronomist at the Allium and Brassica Centre. “If we can get kit like this developed to take out with us, within ten minutes of walking into a field, growers will have results which show what they need to do to protect their crops.” 

Downy mildew in onions can cause damage of up to 50 per cent of individual crops if severe and, in a particularly bad year, the whole industry could see crop losses of up to 25 per cent. This same disease could wipe out a whole field of salad onion.

“The long period between the disease affecting the crop and the symptoms appearing, which are a characteristic of many of the diseases tested, can lead to devastating diseases becoming established in crops turning them into waste,” said Euam Alexander, field operations manager with Kettle Produce in the UK. “Using these tests will allow us to select the appropriate fungicide and time application as part of our crop management strategy, before the disease renders any of the crops unmarketable.”

In addition to the common pregnancy test, LFDs are used to detect human diseases including colo-rectal cancer, cardiac issues and drug abuse screening.

The LFD tests are also being developed to detect for other plant diseases. The AHDB is funding the University of Worcester to develop lab tests and LFDs to test for oomycete pathogens, which cause diseases like blight and sudden oak death. Primarily testing is focused on root, stem and crown rots caused by Pythium and the Phytophthora species, commonly known as ‘the plant destroyer’, which can affect a range of crops. 

Through the same funding, Warwickshire Colleges and Stockbridge Technology Centre are developing and testing two LFDs to test glasshouse air samples for powdery mildew and gummy stem blight, which affect cucumber crops. Canker in apple tree crops is being investigated in a separate research program.
Published in Research
December 19, 2017, Israel – NRGene, a company involved in genomic assembly and analysis, is working with a team of researchers from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands plus commercial partners to create multi-genome mapping of commercial food potatoes.

Potatoes are the fourth most consumed food crop in the world and its genome is complex. It’s an auto-tetraploid, which means that each potato cell contains four nearly identical copies of each chromosome and gene, making the assembly and phasing of the four copies extremely difficult for traditional technologies.

NRGene has completed the phased assembly of three commercial potato varieties.

It’s hoped the potato pangenome will synergize the assembly information to contribute a comprehensive genomics view of the potato genome. The group, led by potato researcher Dr. Richard Finkers and Dr. Richard Visser from WUR, is seeking other researchers from academia and industry to join the project to enrich the pan-genome analysis and thus better characterize the natural genetic diversity of the species.

“Potato research and breeding faced significant difficulties during the last 100 years,” says Dr. Finkers of WUR. “NRGene’s genomes and pan-genome analysis will allow us to map traits on the level of haplotypes, which was previously almost impossible.”

Dr. Finkers will present the potato genome research at the PAG XXVI conference, Jan. 16, 2018, in San Diego, Calif.
Published in Research
November 9, 2017, Columbus, OH – An experimental “golden” potato could hold the power to prevent disease and death in developing countries where residents rely heavily upon the starchy food for sustenance, new research suggests.

A serving of the yellow-orange lab-engineered potato has the potential to provide as much as 42 per cent of a child’s recommended daily intake of vitamin A and 34 per cent of a child’s recommended intake of vitamin E, according to a recent study co-led by researchers at Ohio State University.

Women of reproductive age could get 15 per cent of their recommended vitamin A and 17 per cent of recommended vitamin E from that same 5.3 ounce (150 gram) serving, the researchers concluded.

The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE

Potato is the fourth most widely consumed plant food by humans after rice, wheat and corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is a staple food in some Asian, African and South American countries where there is a high incidence of vitamin A and vitamin E deficiencies. 

“More than 800,000 people depend on the potato as their main source of energy and many of these individuals are not consuming adequate amounts of these vital nutrients,” said study author Mark Failla, professor emeritus of human nutrition at Ohio State.

“These golden tubers have far more vitamin A and vitamin E than white potatoes, and that could make a significant difference in certain populations where deficiencies – and related diseases – are common,” said Failla, a member of Ohio State’s Foods for Health Discovery Theme.

Vitamin A is essential for vision, immunity, organ development, growth and reproductive health. And Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children. Vitamin E protects against oxidative stress and inflammation, conditions associated with damage to nerves, muscles, vision and the immune system.

In Failla’s lab, researchers created a simulated digestive system including a virtual mouth, stomach and small intestine to determine how much provitamin A and vitamin E could potentially be absorbed by someone who eats a golden potato. Provitamin A carotenoids are converted by enzymes into vitamin A that the body can use. Carotenoids are fat-soluble pigments that provide yellow, red and orange colours to fruits and vegetables. They are essential nutrients for animals and humans.

“We ground up boiled golden potato and mimicked the conditions of these digestive organs to determine how much of these fat-soluble nutrients became biologically available,” he said.

The main goal of the work was to examine provitamin A availability. The findings of the high content and availability of vitamin E in the golden potato were an unanticipated and pleasant surprise, Failla said.

The golden potato, which is not commercially available, was metabolically engineered in Italy by a team that collaborated with Failla on the study. The additional carotenoids in the tuber make it a more nutritionally dense food with the potential of improving the health of those who rely heavily upon potatoes for nourishment.

While plant scientists have had some success cross-breeding other plants for nutritional gain, the improved nutritional quality of the golden potato is only possible using metabolic engineering – the manipulation of plant genes in the lab, Failla said.

While some object to this kind of work, the research team stresses that this potato could eventually help prevent childhood blindness and illnesses and even death of infants, children and mothers in developing nations.

“We have to keep an open mind, remembering that nutritional requirements differ in different countries and that our final goal is to provide safe, nutritious food to nine billion people worldwide,” said study co-author Giovanni Giuliano of the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Development at the Casaccia Research Centre in Rome.

Failla said “hidden hunger” – deficiencies in micronutrients – has been a problem for decades in many developing countries because staple food crops were bred for high yield and pest resistance rather than nutritional quality.

“This golden potato would be a way to provide a much more nutritious food that people are eating many times a week, or even several times a day,” he said.
Published in Research
November 6, 2017, Athens, GA – Working with an international team of breeders and genome scientists, plant biologists at the University of Georgia have sequenced the genome of garden asparagus as a model for sex chromosome evolution.

The work sheds light on longstanding questions about the origin and early evolution of sex chromosomes, and at the same time serves as a foundation for asparagus breeding efforts.

Their research, the first confirmation of early models on how sex chromosomes diverge within the same species, was published recently in Nature Communications.

While most flowering plants are hermaphrodites, garden asparagus plants are typically either male (XY) or female (XX), although YY “supermales” can be produced in the greenhouse. Growers prefer all-male plants, as they live longer and do not self-seed. Breeders produce all-male XY seed by crossing an XX female, with a YY supermale. Until now the differences between asparagus X and Y chromosomes were not understood and breeders were not able to distinguish XY males from YY supermales without time-consuming test crosses.

“One of the things that we were able to do pretty early in our collaboration was to identify genetic markers that allowed breeders to efficiently distinguish XY males from YY males and then use those YY males to produce all-male seed,” said Jim Leebens-Mack, professor of plant biology and senior author on the study.

Understanding the genetic variation in plants that allows for XY and YY males was advanced by identification of the genes that determine sex, which paves the way for more efficient development and production of valuable hybrid asparagus plants.

“In addition to more rapid identification of sex genotypes, our collaborators are now able to manipulate the asparagus Y chromosome to convert males to females or hermaphrodites. In the near future, breeders will be able to cross whatever lines they want, without having to look within a particular line for the female that has one set of characteristics, and in another line for a male with complementary traits,” Leebens-Mack said.

Questions about the great diversity of sexual systems in plants go back to Charles Darwin, and a two-gene model for the origin of sex chromosomes was coined by Danish geneticist Mogens Westergaard in the early 20th century. But the theory was impossible to test through analyses of humans and mammal sex chromosomes, where divergence of the X and Y chromosomes happened tens of millions ago.

Flowering plants like asparagus, however, have more recent origins of separate sexes and sex chromosomes, presenting an ideal opportunity to test Westergaard's two-gene model while at the same time aiding crop breeding programs.

The researchers found that, as predicted by Westergaard and others, linkage of a gene necessary for male function with a gene stunting development of female organs on a small portion of the Y chromosome was the starting point for the evolution of asparagus sex chromosomes.

“Over the last hundred years, evolutionary biologists have hypothesized several ways that a regular pair of chromosomes can evolve into an X and Y pair that determine sex,” said Alex Harkess, former doctoral student in the Leebens-Mack lab and lead author on the study. “Our work confirms one of these hypotheses, showing that a sex chromosome pair can evolve by mutations in just two genes – one that influences pollen (male) development, and one that influences pistil (female) development.”

“Breeders have dreamed about manipulating sex determination in garden asparagus for decades,” said co-author Ron van der Hulst of Limgroup breeding company in the Netherlands. “Identification of sex determination genes in asparagus will now allow us to produce plants with male, female and bisexual flowers, and greatly speed the development of inbred lines to produce elite hybrid seed.”

Co-author and Italian asparagus breeder Agostino Falavigna also noted that the reference genome for garden asparagus will enable him and other breeders to more efficiently use wild relatives as sources for genes that could enhance disease resistance, spear quality, flavour, aroma and antioxidant content.
Published in Research
October 31, 2017, East Lansing, MI – The old adage of looking to the past to understand the future certainly applies to improving potatoes.

Examining the ancestors of the modern, North American cultivated potato has revealed a set of common genes and important genetic pathways that have helped spuds adapt over thousands of years. The study appears in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Robin Buell, Michigan State University Foundation professor of plant biology and senior author of the paper, shows potential genetic keys that could ensure the crop will thrive in the future.

“Worldwide, potato is the third most important crop grown for direct human consumption, yet breeders have struggled to produce new varieties that outperform those released over a century ago,” Buell said. “By analyzing cultivated potato and its wild relatives using modern genomics approaches, we were able to reveal key factors that could address food security in 21st century agriculture.”

Cultivated potatoes – domesticated from wild Solanum species, a genetically simpler diploid (containing two complete sets of chromosomes) species – can be traced to the Andes Mountains in Peru, South America.

While the exact means of the potato migration are unknown, spuds essentially spread worldwide since their domestication some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. As potatoes were taken from the more equatorial regions of Peru and Bolivia to the southern parts of South America, they became adapted to longer summer days in Chile and Argentina.

One aspect that is known is how Spanish conquistadors introduced potatoes upon return from their South American exploits to the European continent, where potatoes were quickly adapted as a staple crop. As the explorers ventured from Europe to North America, they also brought potatoes to the new world.

Scientific explorer Michael Hardigan, formerly at MSU and now at the University of California-Davis, led the team of MSU and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University scientists. Together, they studied wild landrace (South American potatoes that are grown by local farmers) and modern cultivars developed by plant breeders. The result was the largest crop re-sequencing study to date.

Not only did it involve substantial re-sequencing of potato, but it also tackled one of the most-diverse crop genomes. The modern spuds found in today’s kitchens are genetically complex tetraploid potatoes, having four-times the regular number of chromosomes. Potatoes’ complex genome harbors an estimated 39,000 genes. (In comparison, the human genome comprises roughly 20,000 genes.)

From the large gene pool, the researchers identified 2,622 genes that drove the crop’s early improvement when first domesticated.

Studying the gene diversity spectrum, from its wild past to its cultivated present, can provide an essential source of untapped adaptive potential, Buell said.

“We’ll be able to identify and study historic introgressions and hybridization events as well as find genes targeted during domestication that control variance for agricultural traits,” she said. “Many of these help focus on adapting to different climates, fending off different pathogens or improving yield, keys that we hope to better understand to improve future breeding efforts.”

For example, wild potatoes reproduce through berries and seeds. Cultivated potatoes are asexual and are food and seed in one. (Anyone who’s left a potato in a dark pantry too long has witnessed this trait firsthand.)

The researchers present evidence of the signatures of selection in genes controlling this change. They also shed light on a role of wild species in genetic pathways for fighting pests and processing sugars for food. Diving into somewhat obscure territory, they looked at potential genetic sources that control circadian rhythm; yes, plants also have 24-hour clocks controlling biological processes. 

“We knew about their physiological traits, but we didn’t know what genes were involved,” Buell said. “As potatoes were moved, they had to adapt to longer days, more hours of sunlight. We’re now starting to understand what’s happening at the genetic level and how wild Solanum species evolved to long-day adapted tetraploid potatoes.”
Published in Research
September 5, 2017, Netherlands - In a hidden experimental field in Wageningen, the Netherlands, surrounded by tall maize plants, there are several smaller plots with potato plants.

In some of these plots there are only dead plants, in others the plants have been affected by late blight (Phytophthora infestans) to a greater or lesser extent, but there are also fields with only perfectly healthy potatoes.

The latter are the result of the latest crosses by the Wageningen company, Solynta. The breeders have succeeded, thanks to their revolutionary hybrid breeding technique, in making potato plants insusceptible to the dreaded potato disease.

A new way of potato breeding

Potatoes are generally clone-bred and grown vegetatively. A seed-potato is put in the ground, which produces some ten new potatoes. One of the disadvantages of this system is that the parent plant transmits diseases to the offspring. Also, making the crop resistant is a long process.

Solynta has therefore selected a whole new approach: the company developed hybrid breeding with elite parent-lines, which allow propagation with true seeds. READ MORE
Published in Research
July 31, 2017, Vancouver, B.C. - The agri-business sector is a key driver of growth in the Canadian economy and a source of good, well-paying jobs for the middle class. The Government of Canada is committed to helping British Columbia's agri-food sector grow their businesses, expand and access new markets at home and abroad as we target reaching $75B in exports of agri-food products by 2025.

Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Parliamentary Secretary for International Trade and Member of Parliament for West Vancouver — Sunshine Coast —Sea to Sky Country, on behalf of Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Lawrence MacAulay, announced over $233,000 to help B.C.'s agri-food sector increase sales in markets in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

The funding provided will help eleven small-and medium-sized agri-food businesses expand existing markets and build new global customers, develop and maintain branding tools, and participate in trade shows and missions.

The following organizations received federal funding:

Amra Services Ltd.
Big Mountain Foods
HOOH Organic Hop Company Ltd
Naturally Homegrown Foods Ltd
Nonna Pia's Gourmet Sauces Ltd
Nutra Ex Food Inc.
Organika Health Products Inc.
Pacific Fermentation Ind. Inc.
Tropical Link Canada Ltd.
Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery Inc.
Unsworth Vineyards Ltd.

"Support for projects such as these emphasizes our commitment to help B.C.'s agriculture and agri-food sector expand export markets and demand for Canadian products. Through this investment, we are creating opportunities for B.C.'s agri-food sector to grow, diversify and prosper," said Lawrence MacAulay, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.
Published in Federal
July 20, 2017, Kelowna, B.C. - Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna, British Columbia has received a perfect 100 point score and a Double Gold Medal for its 2013 'Small Lot' Semillon Icewine from the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Summerhill founder and proprietor Stephen Cipes enthuses, "Summerhill Pyramid Organic Winery and Bistro in Kelowna British Columbia has been honoured with perhaps the two most significant awards in the wine industry worldwide, proving once again that organic is the way to be!"

"In May of this year, 2017," he continues, "Summerhill was named the number one wine (the best Chardonnay in the world!) at the Chardonnay du Monde Competition in France, with over 700 entries from 38 countries. Just last week, another wine won Double Gold and 100 points in San Francisco, with 4200 entries from 31 countries around the world!"

"Summerhill specializes in sparkling wines with Cipes Brut receiving Gold each and every year for 25 years making it the single most awarded wine in Canada. All of Summerhill wines are cellared in a precision geometry pyramid and lovingly made in the certified organic cellar by co-founder Eric von Krosigk and his amazingly talented and dedicated team."

"May the goodness of the Earth continue to shine and bring pride to all Canadians and may our success be a beacon of light to all the world, to return to organic growing as it gives humanity a return to our oneness and harmony with Nature. Thank you!"

Summerhill Pyramid Winery, located for more than 25 years in the Lakeshore district in Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley, B.C., is Canada's largest certified organic winery, B.C.'s first Demeter certified biodynamic vineyard, and Canada's foremost producer of sparkling wine.

Winemaker Eric von Krosigk oversees the portfolio of B.C. VQA wines that have earned the winery the title of 'Canadian Wine Producer of the Year' from the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London, England. The winery, owned by the Cipes family, is also home to the Sunset Organic Bistro, a two-hundred seat restaurant with a panoramic view of Okanagan Lake, serving food grown and raised by local organic producers, including Summerhill's own on-site permaculture-style vegetable garden.
Published in Companies
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