ARCHIVED - Exploring the genetic blueprint of canola

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October 03, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

An international research consortium has determined the complete DNA sequence or genome of Brassica rapa. Also known in Canada as “Polish canola,” B. rapa is one of two ancestral species of modern canola (Brassica napus or B. napus), Canada’s most lucrative oilseed crop. This research could help plant breeders develop new canola varieties that are higher-yielding, more disease-resistant and more drought-tolerant. 

Published in the October 2011 issue of Nature Genetics, the DNA sequence of B. rapa will “make it easier for scientists to sequence the larger B. napus genome,” says Dr. Andrew Sharpe of the NRC Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon, who is also co-leader of the Canadian Canola Sequencing Initiative (CanSeq). The initiative, which also involves Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Genome Alberta and nine private partners from around the world, aims to sequence the genomes of major Brassica oilseed crops, such as canola and mustard.

Field of canola with grain elevator in background.

Modern canola was originally developed as a commercial oilseed crop in the 1970s with major research contributions from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the University of Manitoba and NRC. Since then, B. napus has become the predominant canola species on the prairies, adding close to $14 billion in economic activity to the Canadian economy.

What is Brassica?

Brassica is a group of plants in the mustard family that includes canola and vegetable crops such as turnips, broccoli and Chinese cabbage. Brassica species are cultivated both for food (including their roots, stems, leaves and flowers) and for their oil-rich seeds.

By determining the DNA sequence of a crop plant, researchers can better identify key genes and map traits of interest. Breeders can then apply such information to select plants with desirable traits earlier in their life cycle, such as at the seedling stage, thereby accelerating the development of more productive and profitable varieties at a lower cost. 

Close up of canola plants.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2009, Canadian farmers grew 11.8 million tonnes of canola. Our canola industry employs more than 216,000 people in production, transportation, crushing, refining, food development, manufacturing and service.

Origins of canola

Like many modern plants, modern canola was formed by the natural cross-breeding of two founder species: B. rapa (one of the original oilseed crops grown on the prairies) and B. oleracea (vegetable crops such as cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts). Today, B. rapa is still harvested in areas with shortened growing seasons, such as the Peace River region of Alberta, because it matures earlier than B. napus

Sequencing Polish canola

With advances in DNA sequencing technologies, the B. rapa genome was completed in less than two years and for under $1 million by the B. rapa Genome Sequencing Project Consortium, which involved more than 100 researchers from 29 organizations around the world. By comparison, when the human genome was fully sequenced in 2003, it was the result of 13 years of work and approximately US$2.7 billion. The B. rapa genome represents one of the most complex plant genomes to be sequenced to date using a whole genome sequencing strategy.

Working with international collaborators, the CanSeq team has already begun to sequence the B. napus genome and expects to complete this work by the end of 2011. “We are also sequencing the genome of B. oleracea to aid the B. napus sequencing,” says Dr. Sharpe. “We later plan to tackle brown mustard (B. juncea), which is grown in Canada as well as on the Indian sub-continent, and Ethiopian mustard (B. carinata), another oilseed crop that is being adapted to be grown on the Prairies.”

This diagram illustrates the genetic relationships between the ancestral species of modern canola (Brassica napus) and other related oilseed crops. B. napus was produced by a natural combination of the genomes of Brassica oleracea (broccoli or cabbage) and Brassica rapa (Polish canola), producing a hybrid that has two full chromosome sets from each of the two parents. B. juncea is a combination of the genomes of B. rapa and Brassica nigra (black mustard), and B. carinata is a combination of the genomes of B. oleracea and B. nigra.

The genomes of the canola family tree

Related information

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National Research Council of Canada

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