Province Invests $3.2 Million in U of G Genomics Research

May 15, 2009 - News Release

Creating environmentally friendly plants that will boost corn production and identifying and discovering new species are the goals of two cutting-edge genomics projects at the University of Guelph that have received $3.2 million in provincial funding.

The announcement was made today in Guelph by John Wilkinson, minister of research and innovation, with Liz Sandals, MPP for Guelph-Wellington, and Kevin Hall, vice-president (research), in attendance. Support for the projects comes from the Ontario Research Fund.

"We're grateful to the provincial government for this much-needed support for genomics research," Hall said. "Genomics is at the core of the discoveries that will change the world, offering possibilities for everything from new treatments for diseases to increased food production to new diagnostic methods. This funding will help U of G position itself as a leader in this field."

The bulk of the funding, $2.8 million, will support a project headed by Prof. Steven Rothstein of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. He is using genomics to understand the underpinnings of plant growth and to develop corn crops that would require less fertilizer and water.

When the provincial money is added to funding from Syngenta, the project's industrial partner and a leading agricultural biotech company, and from the University, the four-year project will receive more than $8.5 million in cash and in-kind support.

Corn is one of the world's most important food crops and a major commodity in Ontario, worth more than $1.5 billion to the economy annually. But global factors are putting stress on productivity, and farmers need to double yields over the next 30 to 40 years to meet expected demand, Rothstein said.

"Current agricultural practices can be made more sustainable. There is much room for improvement, and significant increases in productivity can be achieved by understanding key plant genes."

He and his research team will identify genes that control plant growth. Next, they'll alter the genes' activity to target traits that would improve the plant. Specifically, they want to discover the genes or the gene activity that regulate nutrient uptake so they can improve plants' efficiency in absorbing and using nitrogen.

Better nitrogen use would mean that less fertilizer would be needed to produce the same yield, which would reduce costs and help the environment, said Rothstein. "Nitrogen fertilizers are one of the largest input costs for farmers and a very significant source of pollution from crop agriculture."

A 20-per-cent reduction in the amount of nitrogen fertilizer would lead to a 40-per-cent decrease in this type of pollution, he said. "This could clearly be a significant achievement."

Corn was selected for the study because of its prominence in Ontario, the completion of the maize genome sequence and Rothstein's expertise in maize genetics.

It's also the main crop of interest to Syngenta. "Our goal is to increase harvestable yield for farmers, and we can do this faster through collaborations with leading researchers,” said Jay Bradshaw, president of Syngenta Canada. “We’re pleased that the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation is supporting scientific advancements in agriculture through this grant.”

Rothstein added that the genomic information gained from studying corn can be transferred to other important grain crops such as barley, rice and wheat. Other Guelph professors involved in the project are Joseph Colasanti and Robert Mullen of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Lewis Lukens and Manish Raizada of the Department of Plant Agriculture.

In addition, the U of G-based Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding was awarded $400,000. Located within the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, the centre will use the funds to help support a technology development project for scanning biodiversity in bulk environmental samples through the use of cutting edge next-generation DNA sequencing approaches. This project is led by integrative biology professors Paul Hebert and Mehrdad Hajibabaei and will set the stage for integrating this technology in Environment Canada’s biomonitoring programs.

DNA barcoding has already led to the discovery of overlooked species of birds, bats, butterflies, fishes and marine algae. The International Barcode of Life Project, led by researchers at Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, will gather barcode records for a half-million species in the next five years. Once fully implemented, the environmental barcoding technology will revolutionize access to biodiversity information from complex environmental samples such as water and soil.

Over the past several years, the various barcoding projects have received several millions of dollars in government, private-and public-sector support that have reinforced Canada’s leadership in biodiversity genomics research.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338/, or Barry Gunn, Ext. 56982/

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