The team led by former Miami farm boy and now U of M professor, Rob Duncan will receive $3.885 million over five years to develop improved HEAR cultivars.
Their research will also benefit canola, a closely related crop.
The funding is the third-highest awarded under the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Collaborative Research and Development program.
NSERC is contributing $1.925 million, while industry partners Bunge Canada and DL Seeds will invest another $1.96 million.
“The focus will be on developing high-yielding, superior-quality, disease-resistant, herbicide-tolerant hybrid HEAR cultivars,” Duncan said in an interview.
“In the very short term we should be increasing yields, if we already haven’t, by at least 10 to 15 per cent versus the OPs (open-pollinated cultivars).”
Developing blackleg-resistant cultivars is a top priority. Breakthroughs there will be applied to canola, Duncan said.
In addition the project will see 14 students get their master’s or PhD degrees and commercial as well as academic experience.
Two other University of Manitoba professors are part of the team — plant pathologist Dilantha Fernando and genomics expert Genyi Li.
DL Seeds will contribute its expertise in hybridization and seed commercialization.
HEAR, which is grown by farmers under contract with Bunge Canada, produces a unique oil with lubrication properties that can’t be duplicated by petroleum, Duncan said. It’s used in a wide range of lubricants, slippage agents, plastics, lacquers, coatings and cosmetics.
“It’s really a bio- or natural industrial oil that we can grow. It’s quite a success story in that it’s a renewable, industrial oil that we can produce in our fields.”
Bred out of canola
HEAR is high in erucic acid, a fatty acid. The content in conventional rapeseed is under 40 per cent, but is 50 per cent or higher in HEAR.
High levels of erucic acid were one of the reasons why rapeseed oil was originally not suitable for human consumption. The University of Manitoba’s Baldur Stefasson and Agriculture Canada’s Keith Downey invented canola by reducing the erucic acid in the oil and the amount of glucosinolates in the meal.
U of M breeder Peter McVetty took over from Stefansson and focused on HEAR. Before recently retiring he released the world’s first herbicide-tolerant, hybrid HEAR cultivar, Hyhear 1 (pronounced Higher 1).
Duncan, 34, who earned a PhD from the University of California, Davis, started with the HEAR program last April. He said he is gratified to receive so much funding.
“Usually somebody at this stage (in their career) wouldn’t get it so it was quite exciting and great for the program,” he said “Somebody new coming in and developing it from scratch would have no chance, but it is really because of the program I was coming into and the support from the university and the team that’s set up here. Many of my staff members have been here for 20-plus years and with their expertise and knowledge they’ve made it possible.”
Before joining the University of Manitoba, Duncan was a professor and wheat and oilseed specialist at Texas A & M University.