Finding root solutions

Leon Kochian, one of the world's most highly cited scientific researchers, has been named the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Food Systems and Security at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) - a $20-million initiative that will use cutting-edge plant and soil science to help feed a growing world.

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“We are excited to recruit an individual of Leon’s research pre-eminence to lead this multidisciplinary program that will drive change in agricultural technologies, practices and policies, while training young scientists in an innovative systems approach to global food security,” said Karen Chad, U of S vice-president research.

“Combined with our $37.2-million Canada First Research Excellence Fund program in food security launched in August and our world-class facilities and agri-food expertise, we are poised to provide transformative and sustainable research solutions to the world.”

Kochian joins the U of S and its Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He will serve as associate director of GIFS—founded in 2012 by PotashCorp, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the U of S—and will lead the institute’s research on root, soil and microbial interactions. He will also hold faculty appointments in plant sciences and soil science at the U of S College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

In announcing the $10-million federal contribution, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale said, “The arrival of Leon Kochian as CERC in Food Systems and Security is a coup for the U of S and for Canadian research. As we examine the social and societal implications of climate change, his work will help strengthen Canadian agriculture – and make our economy more resilient, which will improve our collective well-being and strengthen the middle class.”

The seven-year funding for the $20-million research program comes from the federal government ($10 million), the U of S Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) ($7 million), and the U of S ($3 million). A further $800,000 will be contributed by the Canada Foundation for Innovation towards the cost of a $2-million “Roots of Food Security” research facility to support the work of the CERC team in designing and breeding better crops with more efficient root systems. The remaining funding for the facility will be sought from public and private sources.

“The new crop varieties and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices and technologies that Leon and his CERC team will develop at GIFS will have a significant impact in both the developed and developing world,” said Maurice Moloney, GIFS executive director and CEO. “With Leon as a critical part of our growing GIFS team, we will work with producers and other partners around the world to promote adoption of these new crops and technologies in order to address daunting global food security challenges.”

Kochian and his team aim to improve crops by unlocking the secrets of the plant’s “hidden half”—the root system, an unexplored aspect of plant research and crop development.

“We will develop new root-based approaches to crop improvement that will lead to targeted breeding of superior root traits and ultimately new crop varieties with higher yields and greater capacity to thrive in the world’s less fertile soils,” Kochian said.

The CERC team will use the Canadian Light Source synchrotron and other revolutionary root imaging tools, along with the latest computer technology, to digitize desired crop traits (phenotypes) and link them to specific genes in a searchable database. This will enable tailored design and breeding of root systems to specific agro-environments for the major crops, including wheat, barley, lentils, and canola. 

“The successful recruitment of such a highly cited and influential individual to the U of S and the Global Institute for Food Security demonstrates the strength of our province’s research community,” said Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture Lyle Stewart. “Leon Kochian is a skilled, respected researcher whose work, in addition to further establishing Saskatchewan as an international leader in the biosciences, will help feed a growing global population. On behalf of the entire Government of Saskatchewan, I want to congratulate him on this prestigious appointment. We wish him all the best.”

See more on the University of Saskatchewan news website