No water, no cry

No water, no cry

A thriving partnership between the University of Toronto and Performance Plants Inc. sows the seeds for a new generation of drought-tolerant crops
July 31, 2006
Picture a farm where the crops can stay fresh and green even after weeks of hot dry conditions. That picture could soon be a reality thanks to the work of Peter McCourt a botany professor at the University of Toronto (U of T).
 

By manipulating a gene that affects drought tolerance in plants, McCourt may well help plants survive through short-term droughts. Performance Plants, a Canadian biotech firm based in Kingston, Ontario, is developing and testing crops based on McCourt’s research. This academic-industry partnership could transform how farmers operate.

“Having a crop that can cope through a drought and then keep growing when the rain comes would be magic on our farm,” says Steve Small, a third-generation farmer outside Gull Lake in the southwestern corner of Saskatchewan. “Drought is our biggest problem. It can be the difference between making or losing money.”

Three years of data from extensive field trials at sites in Saskatchewan and Alberta show canola plants grown with Performance Plants’ Yield Protection Technology (YPT™) consistently out-yielded the canola without YPT™ by up to 26 percent.

A plant preserves moisture by closing its stomata—the tiny pores on its leaves. The closure of a plant’s stomata is triggered by a plant hormone called abscisic acid (ABA). Sensing of the hormone is controlled by a gene called ERA1. McCourt discovered that by manipulating ERA1, a plant can respond to dry conditions by closing its stomata earlier and tighter, so it retains water and lives longer.

Unlike work with genetically modified organisms, where material from different species is combined, this project takes a high-tech approach to what plant breeders have been doing for centuries. “We are engineering the plants to be very responsive. If they sense even a little bit of drought, they can shut down transpiration faster to conserve water. This temporary shutdown can be reversed quickly when moisture becomes available in the soil,” says Yafan Huang, Chief Scientific Officer at Performance Plants.

This sensitivity could make all the difference for farmers like Small. His main challenge, like the one facing many farmers across Canada, isn’t about dealing with a catastrophic drought that leaves cracked earth in its wake. Generally, drought means a few weeks of hot dry weather at precisely the wrong time, stunting plant growth and reducing yields.

The key benefit of Performance Plants’ approach is the ability to maintain decent yields in both good and bad conditions. The hunt for drought-tolerant crops is decades old, and this trait is widely considered to be modern agriculture’s Holy Grail. But, until now, there was always a trade-off between drought tolerance and yield.

“The revolutionary aspect of this technology is that the drought tolerance and yield protection mechanism are controlled by a built-in molecular switch that is only turned on when plants sense lack of water in the soil,” Huang says. “This cleverly engineered mechanism allows plants to achieve maximum productivity under different growth conditions.”

Performance Plants is continuing to test its technology on canola for the fourth year while developing the technology in other major crop species, such as corn, soybean, cotton, ornamental plants, and turf grasses. Huang says a commercially available version of drought-tolerant corn could be in farmers’ fields as soon as 2010.

Watch an excerpt of an interview with U of T’s Peter McCourt and David Dennis, President and CEO of Performance Plants.

Benefits

Food and water are the basic building blocks of life. Using drought-tolerant plants to produce more food with less water will help boost crop yields and protect water supplies by reducing the need for irrigation.

Statistics Canada estimates that stresses, such as drought and cold, reduce crop yield by up to 60 percent in any particular year. Improving the ability of crops to withstand these threats is not only economically important for Canadian farmers, but it could have profound implications for improving food production around the world.

“We’re looking at billions of dollars in applications once this technology is applied to the major crops the world uses, like soybean, rice, and corn,” says Peter McCourt, a U of T botany professor. “And with the potential problems associated with climate change, drought-resistant crops are only going to become more important.”

Canada produced almost 24 million tonnes of wheat in 2005. If drought-tolerant crops increased Canadian production by just 10 percent, it would have been enough to supply Brazil with a quarter of the wheat it consumed that year.

Making these kinds of developments possible is already making Canada a more important player in the field of biotechnology and bringing international recognition to the partnership between U of T’s Department of Botany and Performance Plants.

In April 2006, 25 researchers from the world’s top plant science laboratories were invited to make presentations at the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Performance Plants joined this “elite level” alongside the biotech giant Monsanto, says Huang, because of the groundbreaking nature of its work with U of T on the development of drought- tolerant crops.

The labs at U of T and Performance Plants are also turning into magnets for top biotech talent.

U of T is adding faculty to its 60-member team and, as a sign of the emerging popularity of the field, has begun teaching plant genomics to undergraduates. McCourt cites the presence of a world-class rooftop growth facility and the ability of botanists to interact with medical researchers as key reasons for U of T’s success.

A recent competition for a research position at Performance Plants generated 300 applicants. Huang was so impressed with the quality of the applicants that he convinced his colleagues to hire two additional researchers.

In 2005, BIOTECanada, the national association for biotechnology, honoured Performance Plants with a Most Promising Early Stage Company award. “This is a tribute to the knowledge and dedication of our employees. We are attracting and retaining some of the best innovators in the field,” says Huang.

Partners

The relationship between U of T’s Department of Botany and Performance Plants goes back almost 10 years. Performance Plants is on the cusp of bringing drought-tolerant plants to market that began with the research from U of T. And the flow of ideas isn’t one-sided. Performance Plants has an in-house gene discovery program that sends new strains back to U of T for further experimentation. Together, these partners are expanding into other areas like biofuels.

In June 2000, Performance Plants started to match funding for McCourt’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair in plant biotechnology. NSERC recently renewed the funding for an additional five years.

Learn More

Review Yafan Huang’s presentation to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.

Visit the Canola Council of Canada.