Rooted in Wheat Science

Hucl and Pozniak

photo by David Stobbe

By Bob Florence

“It’s 5 a.m. and I’m on the beach at Good Spirit Lake, having a conference call,” he said, talking about a research project he has started with a group of colleagues around the world.

Pozniak and Pierre Hucl (PhD’86), who are both with the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, are part of an international team that is rethinking wheat. How can we make crops better and get higher yields, they wonder. If we study wheat like it has never been studied before, what happens then?

They are about to find out.

The Canadian Triticum Advancement Through Genomics project is part science, part business and total adventure. For the next three years, and with $8.5 million in support from groups including Genome Canada and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Pozniak, Hucl and the team are getting the inside story on wheat. Gene sequencing, they call it.

“This is about identifying all of the genes in wheat, how they work, how they interact with the rest of the chromosomes,” said Pozniak. “The goal is to complete a high quality reference sequence for the complete wheat genome.”

We know what wheat looks like at harvest. But how does it get there? Just like a person can have blue eyes or brown, the reason for wheat’s height and colour and sway—even for the taste of the bread it makes—are found inside, in its cell DNA.

For Pozniak, Hucl and crew, wheat genes are the focus of this project. As an associate professor of wheat breeding and genetics at the U of S, Pozniak can talk the lab talk. But he speaks in a language we prairie folk understand.

“I come from a family of farmers and a family of musicians,” he said. “My dad, myself and my brother played in a band at dances in the area.” He still plays in a four-man band, and on a recent weekend, he and the group performed at a rural wedding past midnight.

Photo of

Pozniak reviews test results with Megan Torrico, lab technician

photo by David Stobbe

Photo of

Corey Howard, lab technician, analyzes samples

photo by David Stobbe

“He is a dedicated rock ‘n’ roller,” said Hucl.

His family still farms near Rama, SK, not far from Good Spirit Lake. Pozniak recollects, “I was around grain, cows, chickens and pigs. I love the smell of harvest . . . driving a combine late at night . . . the grain dust . . . being with family . . . seeing a small elevator in the distance. This is me. This is my home.”

Pozniak thought he would return to farming when he was done university. Instead, he has dug into agriculture in another way, as a teacher and researcher.

“Pierre was my PhD supervisor,” Pozniak said of Hucl. “He continues to mentor me. You need that push, someone who realizes you have the curiosity, the interest.”

“What I see in Curtis is his curiosity,” states Hucl, who earned his Bachelor of Science and Masters of Science degrees from the University of Guelph before adding a PhD from the U of S in 1986.

By watching and working with Hucl, Pozniak is learning what it takes to be a wheat breeder. Developing a new strain of wheat—starting with an idea and following it through until certified seeds are growing in the ground—is a 12-year challenge, with weather being the wild-card. Good breeders, Pozniak said, deal with it. They have a bushel of patience.

“Call it experience,” said Hucl, who has been doing this for almost 30 years. “With experience you can see there is opportunity in adversity.”

Hucl said this the day after Saskatoon was hit by hail. Troubled by a storm the previous night, he slept for no more than two hours, then drove to check out one of his fields. It was fine. He rolled on.

Hucl and Pozniak have both developed wheat varieties grown by farmers. When not in the classroom or the lab, you will find them in test fields, sometimes making their rounds as late as the summer sunset.

Together, Hucl and Pozniak now zero in on the wheat genome, specifically the 6D chromosome.

“We know it’s complex,” Pozniak said. “We know it’s huge. And only 20 per cent of the DNA in the chromosome contain genes that may be important to disease resistance, to bread making quality. Eighty per cent of the DNA is referred to as “junk DNA”, and we’re not sure what it does. At the end of the day, you’ve answered one question and asked another 10.”

Hucl adds, “The question we have now is can we use some information we find for more effective breeding.”

For the farmer, maybe it results in a variety of new and improved wheat.

For consumers, it means more bread, not just here in Canada, but wherever wheat is grown.

For Pozniak, the combination of education and business at the Crop Development Centre is a good mix. His feet are in the city, and his heart is in the land.

“You know Charles Saunders?” Pozniak asked.

Saunders was a big player in this field a hundred years ago. Raised in London, ON, Saunders went into wheat breeding at the encouragement of his father. Although he did not have a lab or a mill, Saunders would test wheat by chewing on a few kernels. Starting in 1904, he developed a variety at an experimental station in Indian Head, SK. The wheat, called Marquis, won $1,000 in a contest run by the CPR and went on to become the hottest crop on the prairies.

“Charles didn’t have computers and sequencing,” Pozniak said. “These tools have allowed us to tackle some complex issues in a reasonable cost and time. But the questions he asked haven’t changed. ‘What do farmers need? Who are they selling the wheat to? What are they using it for?’

“I would take him out in the field, go with him to the 30,000 (experimental) plots we grow. ‘What do you think about where we are now?’ I’d ask him.”

And bring on the harvest.