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March 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

NRC scientists are imagining the healthy cooking oil of the future — a Canadian-grown vegetable oil, with no saturated fat, as high in monounsaturated fats as olive oil, and with the polyunsaturated fatty acids for which fish is prized. And these researchers think they have a plant with the genes to make not just a super-healthy oil, but even to make the wax for the dinner table candle: Canola.

Canola Flower
Canola Flower

"We see tremendous opportunity in identifying those canola genes that can give us better oil for human health and nutrition and also to produce environmentally friendly alternatives to petroleum-based products, from biodiesel to canola-based lubricants and waxes," says Dr. Wilf Keller, Research Director, Special Projects at the NRC Plant Biotechnology Institute (NRC-PBI) based in Saskatoon.

Since 2003, a dozen NRC-PBI researchers have been laying the genetic groundwork for a new generation of canola varieties as part of the Genetics of Canola Seed Development and Composition project. The project, co-funded by Genome Canada and NRC's Genomics and Health Initiative, also includes Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Asking more from canola is nothing new. While today it's a household name canola was in fact derived from its parent plant rapeseed in 1974 through conventional breeding. Rapeseed and canola are already agricultural workhorses, supplying everything from vegetable oil in the case of canola, to a wide range of environmentally-friendly uses, such as rapeseed-based lubricants.

What is new is the NRC-PBI's genomics approach to helping create a new generation of made-in-Canada canolas. Conventional breeding techniques have been successful in creating disease-resistant, faster-growing varieties of canola. However, many of the characteristics that breeders would now like to improve (such as increased seed size) are difficult, if not impossible, to identify and select for at the whole plant level. So NRC-PBI are turning to canola's genes as the starting point for selecting these complex characteristics.

"Genomics works hand-in-hand with conventional plant breeding," notes Dr. Keller.

"Genomics works hand-in-hand with conventional plant breeding," notes Dr. Keller, the project's leader. " We hope to add another dimension of genetic information that plant breeders will be able to use in developing next generation varieties of canola and other crops."

NRC-PBI researchers are focused on finding the genes to improve four key canola seed characteristics. They want to make them larger. Secondly, they hope to produce seeds with thinner hulls since presently about a sixth of the seed mass is the hull, which has no commercial value. A third goal is to boost the seed's oil production from its current 45-per cent to more than 50-per cent. It's a realistic target considering that some seeds, for example sesame, contain 60-per cent oil. Finally, the NRC-PBI researchers want to identify ways to tweak canola oil's composition. This would enable breeders to select for healthier and more nutritious types of oil, and to develop new oils for industrial use such as nylon production.

Canola from the genes up

Canola is canola because of its unique mix of about 40,000 genes. NRC-PBI researchers are taking a systems approach to understanding when and which of these genes are involved in regulating canola seed development. Using a variety of genomics techniques they've taken molecular snapshots to identify which genes are active (or expressed) during six key developmental periods on the seed's approximately 50-day journey from fertilized egg cell to mature seed.

"We would like to know how the seed works as a factory, for producing oil, protein and other beneficial chemicals," says Dr. Keller.

At each of these developmental stages, NRC-PBI scientists identified the ribonucleic acids (RNA) present in the developing seed. RNA is the messenger molecule between DNA and an organism's protein-making machinery. By identifying the RNA present, the researchers work backwards to identify the actual DNA, or genes, involved.

Through this work, the NRC-PBI team has identified more than 10,000 unique canola genes. They've also built a world-leading library of more than 250,000 Expressed Sequence Tags (ESTs). An EST is a segment of a gene that enables researchers to rapidly identify it without having to "see" the entire gene, like being able to identify a friend by the shape of her nose.

This long-term canola genomics research is the foundation for being able to genetically engineer a new generation of canola varieties. Already NRC-PBI researcher Dr. Adrian Cutler has identified a gene that regulates steroid hormone production which in turn affects the rate of plant growth.

Once genes are identified, the next challenge will be to manipulate them to produce the desired seed characteristics. This is done through a number of techniques including duplicating genes to increase their level of expression, or turning genes "on" or "off" at different stages of development, or in different parts of the plant. Eventually, NRC-PBI researchers will work with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and private seed companies to develop new commercial varieties.

Most of the approximately $2.5 billion worth of canola grown in Canada each year already consists of varieties that are genetically engineered for herbicide resistance. But Dr. Keller believes that the next wave of the plant biotechnology revolution, one based on a fuller understanding of canola's genome, could see canola used to make everything from the olive oil of the prairies to car parts.

"Genomics is going to open-up a foundation much broader and much more significant than the first biotech phase," says Dr. Keller. "Because it's not going to be so much about taking a gene from another organism, as in the case of herbicide-resistant canola, but rather understanding the whole system within the species and doing the fine-tuning to re-jig the molecular plumbing so that you get more and healthier oil with the same genes that are already there."

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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