Researcher Dr. Curtis Ponzniak leads a lab tour following a Genome Canada funding announcement on July 21. The Canadian Press Images/Liam Richards.

Genomics key to U of S agri-food projects

Genome Canada has awarded three of its 11 projects in the national Genomics and Feeding the Future competition to innovative agri-food research led by University of Saskatchewan (U of S) scientists.

The three projects, developed with Genome Prairie, total $23.8 million. Each will use knowledge of gene make-up and functions to improve wheat, lentil and cattle production, respectively.

U of S is also a co-lead on a $9.8-million, Alberta-based project to improve disease resilience and sustainability in pork production.

Research outcomes will significantly contribute to Canada's bioeconomy and help address global food security and safety challenges.

"The outstanding success of our researchers in this competition builds on our signature area of agriculture and demonstrates that the U of S is building significant capacity in areas where national and global food security solutions are required," said Karen Chad, U of S vice-president of research.

"This new knowledge is critical to help address the projected doubling of world food demand by 2050."

U of S plant scientist Curtis Pozniak and National Research Council of Canada scientist Andrew Sharpe received $8.5 million to develop innovative genomic tools to support wheat breeding. Working with a team of scientists from across Canada, they will investigate how breeders can make greater use of untapped genetic variation and more efficiently select for desired characteristics such as yield, disease and pest resistance, and heat and drought stress resilience.

The end result will be more productive, profitable and environmentally sustainable wheat varieties for farmers.

The project, also funded by the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), is part of an international collaboration of more than 1,000 scientists worldwide, co-led by Pozniak, to sequence the entire wheat genome—which is five times larger than the human genome. In Canada, wheat sales and value-added processing represent a more than $11-billion-a-year contribution the nation's economy.

With funding from Genome Prairie and WGRF, U of S plant scientists Kirstin Bett and Bert Vandenberg will head a $7.9-million project to determine the genetics underlying the ability of lentils—a popular food crop worldwide—to grow in different environments around the world.

They also plan to build a strategy to increase Canadian lentil production by three per cent annually, which equates to a $550-million increase in Canadian export revenues by 2025. Canada is the world's largest producer and exporter of lentils, in large part due to new, well-adapted lentil varieties developed over the past 25 years at the U of S.

Andrew Potter, director of the U of S VIDO-InterVac and a WCVM professor of veterinary microbiology, will co-lead a $7.4-million project with University of British Columbia colleague Robert Hancock to develop vaccines against two infectious diseases in cattle—Johne's disease and bovine tuberculosis, a debilitating disease that can spread to humans and other domestic and wild animals.

The research will involve using genomic technology to identify proteins that can stimulate an immune response to the diseases in cattle. There will also be a new diagnostic developed that will differentiate vaccinated from infected animals. The researchers plan to develop and bring to market vaccines for these costly diseases within two years of the project's end.

With an eye to increasing the international competitiveness of Canada's pork industry, WCVM professor and swine specialist Dr. John Harding will co-lead a project with Alberta colleagues that will create genomics tools to select pigs that are more tolerant of, or resistant to, multiple diseases. Those tools will also allow producers to manage the nutritional content of feed to optimize pig's health, resulting in the reduced use of antibiotics.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz spoke about the U of S projects as part of a national announcement of $93 million in research funding: $30.8 million of federal funding through Genome Canada; $5 million from WGRF towards three projects; and the balance from project co-funders including the Saskatchewan government through its Agriculture Development Fund.

View the U of S news release.

Background: research projects co-led by WCVM researchers

Application of genomics to improve disease resilience and sustainability in pork production
Project leaders: Michael Dyck, University of Alberta; John Harding, University of Saskatchewan; Bob Kemp, PigGen Canada Inc. Lead Genome Centres: Genome Alberta, Genome Prairie
Total funding: $9.8 million

Pork is big business for Canadian producers, both domestically and internationally. In Canada, it is the second-most consumed meat. Globally, Canadian pork is exported to more than 100 countries and it is consumed throughout the world more than any other source of protein. Managing disease in pork populations is one of the most costly and difficult challenges for pork producers. In addition to its economic costs, disease likely contributes to public perceptions of animal products in terms of animal welfare, food safety and antimicrobial resistance.

Genomics offers new ways to fight disease in pigs, reducing costs for producers, increasing product quality and improving public perceptions. This will become increasingly important as global demand for animal proteins rises in concert with growing populations. Dr. Michael Dyck of the University of Alberta, Dr. John Harding of University of Saskatchewan and Dr. Bob Kemp of PigGen Canada Inc. are leading a team that will increase the international competitiveness of the Canadian pork industry and its contributions to global food safety and security.

The team is developing genomics tools that Canadian genetic companies and breeders can use to select pigs that are more genetically resilient due to increased tolerance of and/or resistance to multiple diseases (as opposed to simply resistant to one particular disease). The tools will also permit producers to manage the nutritional content of pig feed to optimize pig health such that pigs stay healthier, grow more efficiently and have more successful litters and reduce the need for antibiotic use in pig production. The involvement of industry partners in this project means that, within five years of its end, the rate of genetic improvement and productivity will have an impact on pig production of more than $137 million, further improving the international competitiveness of the Canadian pork industry.

Reverse vaccinology approach for the prevention of mycobacterial disease in cattle
Project leaders: Andrew Potter, VIDO-InterVac, University of Saskatchewan; Robert Hancock, University of British Columbia
Lead Genome Centres: Genome Prairie, Genome British Columbia
Total funding: $7.4 million

This project aims to develop vaccines against two important infectious diseases of cattle, Johne's disease and bovine tuberculosis. Infections are a leading cause of sickness and death in cattle, causing direct economic losses to producers and even more serious losses associated with international trade restrictions (as seen with mad cow disease) and decreased public confidence in food quality. Infectious diseases also pose a risk to human health if they are transferred to people.

The most effective way to prevent infectious disease in animals such as cattle is vaccination. Lack of effective vaccines for some diseases contributes to the overuse of antibiotics and to a strategy of slaughtering infected animals, which has come under increasing public scrutiny. Dr. Andrew Potter of VIDO-InterVac, University of Saskatchewan and Dr. Robert Hancock of the University of British Columbia are leading a team taking a "reverse vaccinology" approach to preventing infectious diseases in cattle. This approach uses genomic technology to screen large numbers of bacterial proteins simultaneously to identify those that have properties that can stimulate a protective immune response in cattle. These proteins then form the basis for developing novel vaccines and immunization strategies.

The team will focus on two common cattle diseases, bovine tuberculosis, a debilitating disease that can spread to man and other domestic and wild animals, and Johne's Disease, a gastrointestinal disease, developing and bringing to market vaccines for these costly diseases within two years' of the project's end. The team will also develop companion diagnostics that will differentiate vaccinated from infected animals. 6 The team's work will ultimately increase productivity and profitability for cattle producers and increase public confidence by reducing the use of slaughter or antibiotics to control infections. It will also enhance Canada's reputation as a major Agrifood producer. The annual financial impact of the vaccines is estimated to be around $100 million, with international sales of a further $400 million.

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