1:32 min Read

Canola - a type of heart-healthy rapeseed oil developed through plant breeding in Canada - has become a major crop of several emerging agricultural export economies.

But the Great White North still remains one of its biggest producers, devoting some 20 million acres to canola and deriving over $19 billion each year from canola production.

Thanks to "green revolution" technology, canola's bright yellow blooms and pods have been improved upon over the years to increase yields, improve hardiness and taste, and maximize health benefits.

Farmers and researchers know canola as a highly "plastic" plant that adapts to different soils and growing conditions in often dramatic ways. And that fact brings huge opportunities for even newer gene-edited innovations.

Recently, a team of researchers, led by the University of Calgary's cell biology professor Marcus Samuel, has used CRISPR on some of the main canola genomes to produce variants that are shorter, grow more branches and contain more pods. Shorter plants increase yields by reducing "edging," the process by which tall plants, unable to bear the weight of their pods, lean and collapse. Shorter plants are also easier to harvest and produce more flowers and pods.

Professor Samuel's research specifically targets the canola hormone strigolactone which shuts down branching. With his team, he uses CRISPR to snip out the sections of the plant's DNA which contain receptors that respond to strigolactone's branching signals. The results have been canola variants which are roughly 34% shorter than unedited varieties. And because only original DNA is involved, there are no transgenic materials coming into the plant.

In the professor's words, "we're looking at where we can target branching and plant height exclusively without compromising any other things."

As of now, the university's research is largely a proof-of-concept effort. The canola variants don't have a name and have not yet been channeled towards commercial production. But several seed companies have expressed interest and Professor Samuel hopes that his team will soon gain access to some proprietary gene plasm lines so his CRISPR research will move to actual application.

The professor is also exploring CRISPR solutions to what is called the "shatter tolerance" of canola pods. Lower shatter makes harvesting easier and more productive. And that's particularly important at a time when Covid-driven labor scarcity is impacting agricultural production.

The future of CRISPR canola looks bright. 

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