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Increasing The Value Of Canadian Wheat

Gregory Penner sees the removal of kernel visual distinguishability (KVD) as a turning point for western Canadian wheat production.

With funding assistance from the Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council (MRAC), Penner and a team of scientists at NeoVentures Biotechnology Inc. are developing a wheat variety identification technology that can replace KVD for the Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) class of wheat.

“The NeoVentures vision is to develop a technology that will enable the removal of KVD to represent a positive step forward in terms of value, while laying the basis for Canadian wheat producers to compete in the future,” says Penner. “The first step towards this future is the development of a cost-effective tool capable of determining varietal composition of grain samples on-farm or on the driveway at grain delivery.”

Penner and his partner Ximena Vedoya co-founded NeoVentures, a privately held biotechnology company based in London, Ont., in 2002. NeoVentures is a global leader in the development of aptamers, which are short-single-stranded fragments of DNA, for application to agricultural opportunities.

Building on previous research, this project involves the identification of a combination of aptamers that when labelled with appropriate fluorescent markers will enable rapid determination of the varietal composition of a wheat sample, including the determination of the proportion of ineligible varieties in a market class, Penner said.

The technology must be able to rapidly and robustly determine the varietal composition of any sample of wheat, even if such a sample is composed of several varieties, says Penner. Value must be identified at the point of grain delivery or before for the grain-handling system to be able to maintain value by not blending it with less valuable deliveries, he added.

There is little demand on the part of end-users for value-added milling and baking characteristics, there is however significant and continuing demand for consistency, says Penner, adding, purchasers want wheat that will perform in an expected manner throughout the entire processing chain from grain milling to the slicing of a loaf of bread.

“Grain companies can only provide a premium for grain if their possession of it provides them with a market advantage over other grain companies,” he says. “The KVD system was based on competitive positioning of Canadian wheat in the world market. A rapid variety identification system has the potential to create competition for value within the Canadian market and thus the potential for competition between grain companies in their efforts to purchase grain.”

Up until now, most work directed towards genetic identification of grain has been based on DNA analysis, says Penner, noting DNA analysis is a very powerful technology providing a high degree of resolving power and accuracy.

To determine the composition of a sample of grain with DNA analysis however requires a number of kernels and the extraction of DNA from each of them, says Penner. So NeoVentures has been focused on the development of a technology that could determine the composition of a bulk sample of grain, without a need to analyze individual kernels.

In the summer of 2008, NeoVentures became increasingly concerned over a potential flaw in the platform they were developing and repositioned their approach to the research.

“We could have achieved milestones but we wouldn’t have had a commercial product. So we hit the reset button,” says Penner, noting the goal is to have a commercial product released to grain elevators in 2010.

Penner says the route taken by NeoVentures to develop this technology is undeniably risky. To his knowledge no other group in the world is developing a similar approach.

“Given success, we will have a made-in-Canada solution, where the technology alone has the potential to increase the value of Canadian wheat,” he says.

For more information on NeoVentures Biotechnology Inc. visit www.neoventures.ca.

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