The Fruits of His Labour
Plant agriculture prof nurtures stone fruits and young scientists in his Vineland lab
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Those plum trees putting out their delicate pink and white blossoms on an early May afternoon in Vineland aren’t the only crop being coaxed along by Prof. Jay Subramanian, Plant Agriculture. Back in his office in the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, Subramanian has plenty to say about breeding stone fruits for consumers in the Niagara Peninsula and worldwide. But he’s equally excited about his volunteer job of nurturing young scientists for tomorrow’s world.
This year, he has served as mentor to four elementary and high school students whose projects on fruit production, storage, and health and environmental benefits collected a handful of awards at the regional science fair. The two high schoolers went on to the Canada-Wide Science Fair last week in Winnipeg. And later this summer, they will jet all the way to northern Africa to display their projects at an international science exhibition in Tunisia.
It seems there’s a global market for Vineland-grown peaches, plums, cherries — and school science projects. And they’re all coming from today’s version of a century-old research facility — reinvented just this year as a research and innovation hub — in the middle of Ontario’s fruit belt.
Being close to growers and the industry is important for a fruit breeder. That’s the major benefit of working at Vineland, says Subramanian, who’s been here since 2002 as one of four Department of Plant Agriculture faculty. (The others are Profs. Helen Fisher and John Cline, who works between Vineland and U of G’s Simcoe Research Station, and recently retired professor Danny Rinker.)
Far from his birthplace in southern India, Subramanian tends prospective varieties of peaches, cherries, plums and nectarines on the property, located between the Queen Elizabeth Way and Lake Ontario. He’s looking for cultivars with such traits as disease resistance and cold tolerance for those growers.
Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he mentions another benefit for a Vineland researcher who commutes from home in St. Catharines. “You don’t have to worry about parking. You can walk five yards and you’re in your office."
That’s the good part. The downside, he concedes, is the difficulty in attracting graduate students from Guelph, although he’s had three master’s and PhD candidates here.
For the past three years, some of his summer students have been much younger than that, including the two high school students who took their projects to Winnipeg last week. Both worked with Subramanian, using his lab and the Vineland greenhouse to study plants and fruit.
A TV news clip gave Supritha Nilam her idea for this year’s project. The short piece described the potential use of fruit antioxidants for staving off aging wrinkles. Produced naturally in dark fruits, these substances can remove potentially damaging oxidizing agents to slow aging — or, in the case of fruit, to lengthen shelf life.
“Plants have antioxidants at different levels, and so do we, to fight oxidative stress,” says the Grade 11 student.
Last summer, she took her idea to Vineland. She’d already completed two high school science fair projects there, working with Subramanian, a family friend. In 2008, she competed in the national science fair in Ottawa.
This year’s project showed that plant antioxidants watered into soil can cause flowers and vegetables to grow faster and larger than untreated controls. Last week in Winnipeg, Nilam’s work earned her a $4,000 Manning Young Canadian Innovation Award and an honourable mention in the environmental innovation category.
Her project also brought her to Guelph with Subramanian last month to attend an invention disclosure meeting at the University’s Business Development Office. The group has applied for a provisional patent and plans to pursue a full patent next year. Before that, the student has some work to do.
This summer she’ll study how plants grow using fertilizer mixed with varying amounts of antioxidants. The idea is to develop a formula that yields healthy plants using less fertilizer.
Excess nitrogen from fertilizer leaches into soil, says Subramanian. From there, it can contaminate groundwater as well as streams and lakes. He thinks antioxidants help plants use fertilizer more efficiently, perhaps by regulating certain genes.
“If we could reduce fertilizer use and still get the same yield, it would be a big cost savings for growers and would reduce pollution in the environment.”
Nilam will take some time away from the greenhouse in July to travel to the science expo in Tunisia.
“It’s my passion — I love science,” she says. Referring to potential environmental benefits and possibilities for boosting food production in parts of the world, she adds: “I like that you can make a difference in the community. This project has shown me that people can make a difference.”
She credits “Dr. Jay” for helping to nurture her interest. “I always like his reaction every time he sees the plants — he loves it. I see that in him all the time. He loves what he does.”
Another eye-catcher for judges at the Niagara regional science fair this year was a project using scented geraniums to remove lead from soil. Bindu Kovvuru, a Grade 12 student, also took her phytoremediation project to the Winnipeg competition. There, she won a trip to Tunisia and was named one of three finalists for the Canadian Stockholm Junior Prize. The winner of that prize will head to Sweden in August to participate in an international competition. She also received an honourable mention in the environmental innovation category at the fair.
In previous years, Kovvuru tested plants’ reaction to methane and carbon dioxide — both identified as greenhouse gases — and seed germination. This year’s project at Vineland picked up on a research interest of plant agriculture professor Praveen Saxena, who has studied the use of scented geraniums for cleaning up toxins in soil. She has applied to several universities for next fall and is thinking about pursuing research full-time, perhaps in medicine.
Two elementary school students also completed projects with Subramanian this year. One was MacKenzie Wiens, an eighth-grader from Niagara-on-the-Lake who looked at pigments called anthocyanins in sour cherries and grapes during fruit storage. The other was his daughter Varsha, who also studied antioxidants to see how they affect shelf life of fruit. The seventh-grader found that treated plums matured more slowly and lasted longer in storage. Last year, she studied the effects of car exhaust on plants. For next year’s project, she thinks she might extend her work on antioxidants to ornamental flowers.
Jay Subramanian says the achievements of all these students make him “happy as a dad, as a mentor, as someone promoting research among kids and as a U of G faculty member at Vineland. We can make the University’s presence felt here and let parents and kids know the University of Guelph is in this region doing active research.”
Located in the Niagara Peninsula for more than a century, the Vineland Research Station was run by the province until it was transferred to U of G in 1998. This month, officials from the University and Vineland signed a partnership agreement to collaborate on industry-driven research initiatives (see story).
Growing up, Subramanian was the “odd guy out” in a family of engineers and chemists. “Going to the garden and watering the plants was not a preferred job, but that’s where my interest started.”
He studied at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and completed a PhD at the University of Florida. His wife, Sivagami Sikamani, earned a master’s degree in horticulture in India.
Since arriving at Vineland seven years ago, he has released plum and peach varieties started by his predecessor. And he’s begun his own cultivar trials, using old-fashioned breeding as well as genetics and biotechnology.
Breeding is a long-term process,” he says. “For tree fruits, it takes at least 15 years to release a new variety.”
Subramanian is still a keen home gardener, but he doesn’t grow fruit trees there. Controlling insect pests is difficult, he says, and it’s important to support local growers by buying their products.
Instead, the family grows vegetables, including such rarities as holy basil, a nod to their Indian roots. They also plant masses of annuals in the front yard, changing colours and species for a different “theme” every year.
This year’s effort will mark a milestone for the couple as well as for Varsha and her younger sister, Dheiksha. Seven years after arriving here, they will become Canadian citizens. They plan to celebrate the occasion with a can’t-miss display of impatiens — in all-Canadian red and white, of course.