USask Research Drives Plant Protein Innovation

David Stobbe / StobbePhoto.ca

As global demand for plant protein increases, the University of Saskatchewan (USask) is on track to become a powerhouse for plant protein research and training to meet the needs of the expanding industry.

Global demand for plant protein as an additional source of protein is fueled by population growth, the high cost of animal-derived proteins, and a large group of consumers who have chosen for various reasons a “flexitarian” diet—mostly vegetarian and meat only occasionally.

“We’re adding value to crops through research and demonstrating that the value-added processing sector has tremendous opportunity for growth when researchers work together with small and large companies,” says Mary Buhr, dean of the USask College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

USask researchers at both the college and the Global Institute for Food Security have played a key role over the past few years in international consortia that have decoded the genomes for durum and bread wheat, canola, peas, and lentils. These complex genomic sequences that identify in proper order all the DNA of a given plant have paved the way for development of powerful tools to improve breeding of complex traits such as yield, insect and disease resistance, and end-use quality.

“USask has outstanding research strengths—from ground-breaking work decoding the DNA blueprint (genome) of various crops, right through to development of new crop-derived products and finding uses for all crop components (protein, starch, sugars and fibre) which increases the economic value for producers,” Buhr says.

“In the process, we’re training the next generation of young scientists for the expanding plant protein industry. And we are excited to work with the federal Protein Industries Canada supercluster which will bring new industries to work with researchers in developing innovative ways of breeding, extracting and manufacturing plant proteins.”

While Saskatchewan is already Canada’s leading supplier of pulses in export markets—crops that are high in protein and fibre, USask researchers are at the frontiers of novel applications to further boost market success.

Using a variety of chickpeas developed at USask, researchers in Martin Reaney’s lab are using aquafaba, the leftover water from boiling chickpeas that is typically discarded as waste, to develop a better egg replacement for making foods such as mayonnaise. They hope that new, high-quality aquafaba-based food products, in powder form to make shipping easier, could reach the market within the next two years.

“I have realized how meaningful this project is to provide more food options for people with allergies and for those who love a vegan lifestyle or need to keep their cholesterol in check,” says Yue He, a PhD biological engineering student involved in the project.

Pea breeder Tom Warkentin is breeding peas with higher protein content and undertaking research to enhance the nutritional value of pea, chickpea and dry bean grains, work which has the potential to address deficiencies in diets of low-income consumers in developing countries. For instance, increased intake of folates is associated with reduced risk of spina bifida in infants, as well as reduced risk of breast, pancreatic and colon cancer in adults.

USask plant protein researcher Mike Nickerson in his lab. Photo by David Stobbe.

USask protein researcher Mike Nickerson is developing new meat alternatives by fermenting a combination of lentils, peas and oats. Tempeh, a protein-rich and cake-like food traditionally made from fermented soybeans, lacks some essential amino acids. Blending pulses with oats shows promise in creating a “complete” protein that is not only high in protein and fiber, gluten- and soy-free, but also tasty and commercially competitive.

As well, USask food researcher Supratim Ghosh is looking at new ways to extract plant proteins from pulses for use as additives in the multi-billion-dollar-a-year beverage industry to improve digestibility and shelf-life for beverages. Ghosh’s proposed method could also reduce both environmental impact and cost.

Use of new technology is creating new opportunities to add value to food production.  For instance, researchers at the university’s Canadian Feed Research Centre in North Battleford have adapted Swedish technology that uses near-infrared light to sort poor quality grain from good grain.  Using this highly accurate technology, they can remove wheat and barley kernels infected with the fusarium fungus and recover 50 to 70 per of the grain so that it is safe for animal and human consumption.

“It only takes a small amount of infected seeds to dramatically reduce the value of the crop,” says Rex Newkirk, who holds a Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture Endowed Research Chair in Feed Processing Technology. “Through this innovative technology, we can recover grain worth $100-$150 million in a year.”

As the agri-food sector expands, companies cannot find enough highly qualified personnel with not only technical and scientific knowledge, but also soft skills such as leadership, project management, communications, and creative thinking.

This past year, an interdisciplinary research group led by professor Nickerson was awarded $1.65 million by the federal government over six years to train young scientists for the expanding plant protein industry.  The training for the more than 70 graduate and undergraduate students will include a four-month industry internship.

“By working across disciplines and institutions, and engaging with industry, this innovative project will provide young scientists with strong scientific, technical and leadership skills to advance the expanding protein ingredient industry,” says Nickerson. “It is part of our efforts to be the university the world needs.”

Innovation at the Global Institute for Food Security

Harnessing machine learning to create climate-smart crops

For the past century, plant breeders have selected the best seeds to grow through a time-consuming process of manually observing and measuring plants in the field.

But what if scientists could train computers to precisely analyze digital images of plants and routinely identify traits related to plant growth, health, resilience and yield?

GIFS PhD student Maryam Honari and post-doctoral fellow Joanne Ernest studying plant specimens in the lab. Photo by David Stobbe.

Crop breeders would be able to more efficiently introduce new, improved varieties, and producers would have the information they need to make reliable crop management decisions (such as how much fertilizer and pesticides to use) during key growth stages to improve yield or respond to environmental changes.

This transformation is underway through innovative multidisciplinary research brought together through the university’s Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Centre (P2IRC) at the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS). Computer scientists are teaming up with plant scientists, remote sensing specialists, and crop breeders to apply machine learning techniques to plant breeding, with a focus on wheat, canola and lentils.

The team is one of only half a dozen in the world doing this type of cutting-edge “computational agriculture” work. Through a new software program, a computer can “learn” to recognize an object or a specific pattern within a set of data derived from drone, sensor or satellite images of crops—somewhat the way recognition software programs can do for human facial features.

This is just one example of how GIFS, a partnership of Nutrien, the provincial government and USask, is helping develop innovative technologies to accelerate plant breeding, paving the way for crops that are more resilient to climate change.

“Our vision is a world where everyone has access to safe and nutritious food,” says GIFS Chief Executive Officer Steven Webb (PhD). “To achieve this, we are moving at the speed of business, working with partners to develop and deliver meaningful solutions for the production of globally sustainable food.”

GIFS also manages the new Omics and Precision Agriculture Laboratory (OPAL), Canada’s first laboratory that combines digital data analysis of plant genes and traits with the latest precision agriculture technologies –such as remote aerial imaging of plants using drones—to improve crop yield, profitability and sustainability in the agri-food sector.

OPAL, a collaboration among USask, the National Research Council of Canada, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, is gearing up for a two-year pilot project this year. Outcomes will include accelerated crop breeding, reduced waste, and increased efficiency for clients in the burgeoning agtech sector that includes agronomists, breeders, and producers.

“OPAL truly is a gem at the centre of the leading hub for agricultural research and innovation on this campus,” says USask Vice-President Karen Chad. “By bringing together the outstanding expertise of all the partners, this unique laboratory will speed up research and product development that will help feed the world, while growing Canada’s economy.”