Advancing wheat research


IT’S BEEN JUST over a year since Dr. Ali Navabi was selected for the Grain Farmers of Ontario professorship in wheat breeding in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, a public-private partnership with SeCan. In that time, Navabi has undertaken a number of research projects to improve the Ontario and Canadian wheat industry.

His program includes collaborations with a number of researchers at the University and those in other public and private breeding programs which allow him to participate in larger projects covering multiple locations. Currently, Navabi works closely with three graduate students, two post-doctoral researchers, and a field technician. He has two more graduate students starting in the fall.

“Right now we have research activities focused on wheat germplasm and variety development and genetics and genomics research, both of which designed to provide an environment for training highly qualified personnel,” says Navabi. “We have a great team assembled in a short time and have been able to take on a number of novel research projects.”

Navabi’s project highlights include the application of novel plant breeding tools to develop new wheat varieties adapted to Ontario, research to better understand environmental adaptation of wheat as controlled by vernalization and photoperiod response, research into higher phosphorus use efficiency, examining performance trials for the Ontario Cereal Crop Committee (OCCC), work to better understand the StayGreen trait in wheat, and new germplasm introductions.

In collaboration with Dr. Lily Tamburic-Ilincic from the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus, Navabi is working on a cross between winter wheat and the StayGreen trait. The StayGreen trait allows the plant to stay green longer, resulting in a longer time period in which the plant can photosynthesize, which results in higher yields. “The idea is that lines that stay green longer might be higher yield,” says Tamburic-Ilincic. “We screen for StayGreen by using Trimble’s GreenSeeker system to measure the greenness of the canopy weekly.”

Navabi is also collaborating with fellow University of Guelph researcher Dr. Jayne Bock, and researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Eastern Cereal and Oilseed Research Centre (AAFC-ECORC) on wheat phenolics. With the goal of producing wheat that performs well for farmers and processors, as well as provides benefits for consumers, they are focusing on the quality of the phenolics content of the wheat and how it survives in the baking process.

“Phenolics are radical antioxidants that mitigate oxidizing damage,” says Bock. “This results in protective capacities that can also slow the rancidity process and increase the shelf life. Whole wheat has these properties.”

Winter wheat is unique in its need to be vernalized; it requires exposure to a period of cold temperatures in order to reach its reproductive stage. Different genetic mechanisms control how early wheat will mature as well as control the flowering time, both of which are important determinants in how well a wheat variety may adapt to its environment. One of Navabi’s graduate students, Alex Whittal, takes notes on a diverse wheat population on how long it takes for each member of the population to reach flowering and maturity. Whittal is also using novel DNA tools to determine the vernalization genes that these wheats carry. Whittal and Navabi are hoping that by examining the association between days to flowering and maturity to the genetic information, they can determine which combination of genes may result in the best adaptation for Ontario and nearby regions.

The project, supported by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, includes collaborations with Dr. Gavin Humphries, a wheat breeder and research scientist with AAFC, and Mark Etienne, a wheat breeder with Hyland Seeds (a division of Dow AgroSciences).

Navabi’s program provides variety testing data for the Ontario Cereal Crop Committee (OCCC). The OCCC’s performance trial plots at the Elora Research Station consist of barley, oat, and wheat trials designed to examine the performance of the registered varieties in Ontario and provide the much needed data to growers to choose varieties for their fields. Navabi’s team take agronomic and disease notes on these plots and provide the data to the OCCC. The summary of multi-location data for the performance trials can be found at

Navabi’s program has put major emphasis on accessing new germplasm from around the world. The new germplasm introduced is expected to enable researchers to ensure they have the right material with which to make crosses. New germplasm sources will be used in crossing, which along with selection for traits of interest, is expected to result in the development of new wheat germplasm.

Navabi’s team has also been actively engaged with making new crosses, including winter/ winter crosses, spring/spring crosses, and spring/winter crosses. However, the number of generations needed to achieve the required purity slows down the process of wheat breeding, especially when it comes to breeding winter wheat. In order to speed up the process, spring wheat breeding materials are advanced two generations per year by growing an off-season cycle in Christchurch, New Zealand. The resulting seeds are then planted again here in Ontario. This allows breeders to advance materials in the pipeline more quickly. As for the winter wheat, the process of advancing breeding generations is being done in in-door growth room facilities at the University of Guelph by trying to speed up the growth cycle by harvesting seeds as early as two-weeks post anthesis. According to Navabi, after the initial cross, up to five generations could be produced in as little as two years.

“We want to link what’s seen in the field with what’s seen in the lab,” says Navabi. “It’s important for us to ensure we are looking out for producers, processors, and consumers.” •