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A Look at Alberta’s Pulse Breeders (PCN Winter 2013) JAN 1 2013 | Consumers and Producers | Pulse Crop News

This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Pulse Crop News.

Alberta is home to three pulse breeding programs: one for peas; one for beans; and one for lentils and chickpeas. Read on to learn more about these programs and the pulse breeders who lead them.

AAFC’s Pea Breeding Program

Pea country in Alberta stretches from north to south and east to west, and in the heart of it is Dr. Deng-jin Bing, a pea breeder for Agriculture and Agri-food Canada who has been responsible for developing some of the best pea varieties in Western Canada.

“Our primary effort of the program is to develop genetically improved field pea varieties for Canadian pulse growers,” said Dr. Bing, who has been based in Lacombe since 2003. “What I mean by genetically improved is we improve the varities through breeding.”

Though Dr. Bing’s program focuses mainly on yellow and green peas, his team has also done some work on marrowfat peas, maple peas, forage peas, mung beans, and lupins – a pulse crop that hasn’t gained much traction in Alberta. “We actually did quite a bit of work on lupins. We selected three to five lupin varieties that are adapted to fit for Alberta. Unfortunately, there’s no market for lupins in Canada.”

Mung beans, on the other hand, are showing a bit more promise.

“We have been working on the mung beans for the past several years and actually have developed three to five lines that will suitable for south Alberta,” said Dr. Bing. “There’s demand for mung beans, and from my study, I think there’s no question we can have mung bean varieties that adapted to the south part of prairies. I think the question is can we grow a profitable crop?”

Growing a profitable pulse crop of any type depends largely on breeding for the right traits. Some traits that Dr. Bing breeds for are common for every market class: high yield, lodging resistance, powdery mildew resistance, and early maturity, especially for peas growing in the northern part of the province. Seed quality is another factor he must consider. Seed uniformity is essential for food-grade peas, as is seed colour – bright yellow for yellow peas; bright green and bleaching tolerance for green peas.

For marrowfat peas, in addition to high yield, disease resistance and lodging resistance, Dr. Bing’s team also emphasizes seed size. “Seed size is critical. The size of the marrowfat is almost double to the yellow or green pea.”

When breeding forage peas, his focus is on biomass production and high protein content, in addition to high yield and powdery mildew resistance. While his program has developed three forage pea lines, with one commercialized, his work on forage peas is limited due to low demand for forage pea varieties.

Breeding for those traits can be a complicated process, depending on which trait the team is working on, according to Dr. Bing. “The majority of the traits – yield, seed quality – are controlled by multiple genes or alleles, so the improvement for those traits really depends on the ability of combining the genes from different parents and the ability to accurately identify the individual plants from the progeny that contain the genes.”

Dr. Bing uses traditional plant breeding method of hybridization – crossing two parents with desireable traits to pass those traits onto the progeny. Though the method has been a standard in plant breeding as far back as the work done by Gregor Mendel, the method relies largely on the breeder’s expertise, which can increase the complexity of the work being done.

“The method is not really new, but how to correctly use the method is really critical,” Dr. Bing said. “It’s a really complicated process that includes the correct evaluation method selection strategies. You have to analyse the data and interpret the information. To a large extent, it depends on the plant breeder’s experience and knowledge of the crop and the traits. It’s a very complicated process.”

The majority of Dr. Bing’s work is done in the field, in multiple locations. For some simple traits, such as powdery mildew resistance, Dr. Bing can select for those traits in the early generations in the greenhouse. More complicated traits, including yield and quality, must be done at multiple locations to ensure accurate data.

“Because traits like yield and quality are multi-genetic in nature, multi-generation evaluation at a single location is ineffective,” explained Dr. Bing. “Evaluation of those traits is conducted at multiple locations over multiple years.”

Dr. Bing uses a four-stage testing system in his breeding program. In the first stage, his team evaluates several lines in one location, normally in Lacombe, without replication, where they always plant the best commercial varieties as checks and select from the check varieties. The breeder’s knowledge at this stage is extremely important, according to Dr. Bing, because he or she has to decide which lines to keep and which to eliminate. In the second stage, Dr. Bing’s team tests the selected lines from the first stage in two locations in replicated trials, where, again, they plant the best commercial varieties as checks. The team ends up with about 100 lines – or 10 per cent – for the next stage. The breeding materials from the second stage are then tested at six to eight locations across the Prairie Provinces in the third stage. Ten to 20 lines will be taken forward to stage four, the cooperative registration trial crop test.

“In the co-op test, it’s standard procedure to present to the variety recommendation committee for testing in 11 to 13 locations across the prairies,” said Dr. Bing. “It’s a very, very expensive process. The cost for each line co-op test is about $2,000, so if you have 20 lines in the co-op test, it will cost you $40,000 dollars a year. We can’t really afford too many lines in the variety registration trials.”

From first making the cross to variety registration, this process takes about 10 years. After the variety is registered, it takes an additional three to four years to get the variety into the farmers’ hands. Considering the cost of testing the lines and the time it takes, developing new varieties can be a painstaking process for pulse breeders – but Dr. Bing feels positive about his program’s success.

“In a breeding program, traditionally, if you have one variety every year, that program isn’t doing bad at all,” said Dr. Bing. “In our history, we have had, on average, two or three varieties every year. The program has been very productive, and down the road, I would expect that our efforts will continue to bring one or two varieties a year.”

And this success would not be possible without grower support, according to Dr. Bing. “Organizations like APG provide additional financial support, which is critical to the breeding program. Without that support, our breeding program would be much less productive. The connection to producers and feedback we receive is essential for the breeding program.”

The financial support and feedback provided by Alberta’s pulse growers make it possible for Dr. Bing to develop lines that are responsive to producers’ needs – which, naturally, benefits the growers as well.

“Producers benefit by accessing the best varieties from our breeding program,” said Dr. Bing. “To develop a variety takes years, and they have to be really created through consistent effort, so by providing the support of the breeding program, we assure that producers have access to better varieties in the future.”

But better variety development isn’t the only way Dr. Bing is looking to the future in his program. In addition to increasing access to better varieties for producers, Dr. Bing is also working on breeding for traits that could set Canada apart on the international marketplace.

“One of the approaches I’ve taken in doing this research for about 10 years is to improve the protein content,” said Dr. Bing. “If Canadian peas have much higher protein content than the peas produced by the other countries, I would think that international buyers would like to buy Canadian peas for feed or food. High protein would be good for most types of uses.”

Dr. Bing believes that Canada’s status as the leading exporter for field peas depends on being able to define what sets Canadian peas – and pea growers – apart from those produced in other countries. “Canada has been leading export for field peas for the past 14 or so years in the world, so we need to ask, what factor has made us a leader for so many years? In order to maintain this position, what do we need to do as a nation and as individual breeders? I think that’s a critical question everybody should ask.”

Notable Varieties

  • AC Agassiz
  • AC Thunderbird
  • AC Argus
  • AC Canstar
  • AC Earlystar
  • AC Peace River
  • AC Reward

How varieties get their names

“Naming varieties for me is really difficult every year. I ask the seed company that if they have their own preference, and the company has their own system to give them promotion for the varieties. In some cases, I ask the people I’m working with – my technicians – if they have any preference. Sometimes, I’ll ask growers to suggest some names. It’s really difficult. We’re trying to establish some kind of variety naming system. It’s a difficult process.”

AAFC’s Bean Breeding Program

Dr. Parthiba Balasubramanian has one real regret from his decade-long experience as a bean breeder for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

“We haven’t had much success on improving white mold resistance,” said Parthiba. “The white mold resistance we have today is the same white mold resistance we had in 2004.”

While white mold is a concern for Dr. Balasubramanian, his primary focus is on three other important traits that affect how beans grow in Southern Alberta conditions: high yield, early maturity, and lodging resistance.

“Southern Alberta has one of the shortest growing seasons for dry bean in Canada,” said Dr. Balasubramanian, who has been working in Lethbridge since 2007. “Our primary objective is to select for high yield and early maturity under a short growing season. Most often, high yield is associated with late maturity. It’s very hard to select for high yield for a short growing season. Doing that is exactly our primary objective.”

Dr. Balasubramanian believes that, to a large extent, the program has been successful in developing bean lines that combine both high seed yield and early maturity. A good example of that is AC Island, a Pinto bean that is widely grown in Southern Alberta. His program also has an experimental Great Northern Bean line coming that has both high yield and earlier maturity than any Great Northern line that exists in Canada today.

After high yield and early maturity, Dr. Balasubramanian focuses on lodging resistance as an avoidance mechanism for white mold, the most devastating disease of dry bean in Southern Alberta. “The more upright the plants are, it enables air movement through the plant canopy and dries the soil surface. This reduces white mold incidence in dry bean. Unfortunately, all our lines are susceptible to white mold right now. But we try to manage the white mold disease, and one way is to develop more upright bean cultivars.”

Dr. Balasubramanian’s team is also evaluating a number of bean genotypes that have more levels of white mold resistance to help manage the disease.

“What we’re currently doing is trying to enhance the yield even more, and we’re trying to add more traits – for instance, disease resistance – into the existing set of cultivars,” said Dr. Balasubramanian, who has obtained bean lines from researchers in the US and Canada and identified lines that are able to withstand white mold under Southern Alberta conditions. “We are able to use those lines as our resistant parents, and we are crossing those to adapt the cultivars that have been developed in our program. So we’re doing a straightforward cross to transfer the traits of interest into the cultivars that are already grown in Southern Alberta.”

Transferring those traits, however, is a long, painstaking process, according to Dr. Balasubramanian. “It takes six to seven years to transfer the resistance and at the same time maintain early maturity and high yield. It’s very easy to transfer resistance, but the line that has resistance may not have the high yield or the early maturity that we’re after. Without the high yield and early maturity, those varieties will not go anywhere. That is very critical for our environment in Southern Alberta, because we don’t have the luxury of a longer growing season.”

Dr. Balasubramanian’s white mold project, for example, has six or seven lines that, despite their potential, may not result in successful crosses. Crossing lines with adapted cultivars – cultivars that are currently grown in Southern Alberta – can sometimes result in incompatible crosses where the trait doesn’t transfer or the progenies die. A red bean line that showed promise and excellent yield had to be dropped at the pre co-op stage – the F7 generation – because of poor lodging resistance.

The process to get to the F7 generation is a lengthy one. After Dr. Balasubramanian’s team crosses the two parent plants, they grow the F1 generation of seeds in the greenhouse to provide the best growing environment possible for the hybrid plant. Seeds harvested from the F1 generation become the F2 generation, which are then planted in the field nursery. The team begins single plant selections in F2, F3, and F4.

“In those single plant selections, we look for uprightness and the number and distribution of pods on the plant,” Dr. Balasubramanian explained. “We can’t measure yield on a single plant, so we try to look at the number of pods the plant has just by eyeballing it. We look at if the pods are nicely distributed at the bottom of the plant so hopefully it will have high yield potential.”

The seeds from the single plants in the F4 nursery are then planted in a row – the F5 generation – and from there, the team bulk harvests the whole row. Essentially, the F5, F6, and F7 generations are yield trials, with the F7 generation as a pre co-op yield trial. If the F7 generation shows good yield, lodging resistance, and maturity, the team moves on to the cooperative registration trial, where the line is trialed for a minimum of two years at three locations in Southern Alberta and one location in Saskatchewan. After two years, if the performance of the line is acceptable, the team presents it for registration, with help from Viterra.

Because this process can take almost a decade, losing a line at the F7 generation can have serious repercussions on a breeding program. But Dr. Balasubramanian sees opportunities for reducing that timeline through molecular marker assisted selection. “We find ourselves using more and more markers to screen for bean plants with certain traits. We’re currently doing marker assisted selection for one or two traits, but I do see using it for more traits in the future.”

Some traits are easier to assess using molecular markers, according to Dr. Balasubramanian, who is looking at developing markers for bacterial wilt resistance. Normally, assessing wilt resistance takes 14 days, because the team has to grow the seedlings. Using the molecular markers decreases that period to three days.

“For specific traits, especially disease resistance, I do see using a lot more molecular markers, because it is easy and it brings efficiency to the program,” said Dr. Balasubramanian. “The time that is spent growing all these plants to maturity could now be spent elsewhere, like in a larger yield trial for instance.”

Marker assisted selection will enhance but by no means replace the selection done in the field, says Dr. Balasubramanian. “How can you assess the true potential of the plant without actually growing the plant in the field?”

This in-field work is a key component of Dr. Balasubramanian’s breeding program, where 90 per cent of the work done is applied research and the remaining 10 per cent is basic research – for instance, trying to identify bean lines and resistance to white mold.

“Even if I find a germplasm line with resistance to white mold, that won’t be of use to growers immediately. I still have to transfer the resistance from the germplasm line into the active cultivar,” said Dr. Balasubramanian. Focusing on grower needs is the cornerstone of Dr. Balasubramanian’s breeding program. As an applied research program, Dr. Balasubramanian’s work brings him in close contact with growers at almost every stage in the breeding process.

“The growers have a lot of input in terms of the objectives of the program and shaping the program,” said Dr. Balasubramanian. “Between the growers and the industry, we make sure the objectives of the program align with what the growers want.”

By investing in these types of breeding programs, organizations like Alberta Pulse Growers are also able to influence the direction of the program. Supporting Dr. Balasubramanian’s breeding program gives APG a place at the table as a stakeholder, ensuring the program is heading in the right direction. Stakeholder input and support is extremely valuable to AAFC, according to Dr. Balasubramanian, but growers benefit from it as well.

“In our breeding program, one of the ways we show impact is the uptake of our cultivars from our program,” said Dr. Balasubramanian. “In 2011, 80 to 85 per cent of the bean acres in Southern Alberta were grown with bean varieties that were developed in Lethbridge and Vauxhall. That’s how I know that the money and input our partners provide to our program directly benefits the growers.”

With over 5,000 yield trial plots in Lethbridge, 2,000 in Vauxhall, and 250 in Bow Island, Dr. Balasubramanian relies on partner investment to ensure the program has the human resources it needs to do the work that growers have prioritized. “The reason we’re able to hire these people is through external funding. That’s where the external funding makes a huge difference. Without the excellent support we get from Alberta Pulse Growers and Viterra, we wouldn’t exist here.”

Notable Varieties

  • Pinto: AC Island
  • Great Northern Bean: AC Polaris; AC Resolute
  • Black Bean: AC Black Diamond
  • Red Bean: AC Redbond

How varieties get their names

“We get input from the industry, because they are the people who will need to commercialize the line, so they should be comfortable with the name,” said Dr. Balasubramanian.

  • AC Tundra is a Great Northern line with a white seed coat colour, so Tundra fit nicely.
  • AC Island is named for Bow Island.
  • AC Resolute is named for Resolute Bay in the arctic.
  • AC Redbond, a red bean, was numbered 007, so it was named Redbond after its colour and James Bond.

CDC South’s Lentil and Chickpea Breeding Program

A unique partnership with the University of Saskatchewan breeding program has resulted in lentil and chickpea lines that are well-suited to Southern Alberta’s growing conditions, according to Dr. Manjula Bandara, Research Scientist with the Crop Diversification Centre South in Brooks.

“When I first came on 1999, we didn’t have any pulse crop improvement program at CDC South,” said Dr. Bandara, whose program focuses mainly on red lentils and kabuli chickpeas. “When we started the program in 2001, we were not breeding or crossing. Almost every line comes from the University of Saskatchewan.”

At that time, Dr. Bandara’s team grew the lines in at least one or two sites in Southern Alberta and selected the most promising lines for the area, while the University of Saskatchewan did the same for their province. “We managed to get fairly promising lines that we think are important to Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. It’s of mutual benefit.”

In 2003, Dr. Bandara started selecting some herbicide-resistant lentils to help overcome the challenges growers were facing with weed control. From that work came CDC Maxim, a high-yielding red lentil variety that accounts for over half of the red lentil acreage in Alberta.

“Right now, Clearfield type lentil are becoming very dominant because of the weed issue,” said Dr. Bandara. “Among lentil areas here, about 90 per cent of the total lentil production in Alberta represents Clearfield type. About 57 per cent is CDC Maxim.”

Though Dr. Bandara’s breeding program is not traditional – in the sense that the breeding and crossing itself is not done at the CDC South – many of the program’s successes can be attributed to its cooperative nature, according to Dr. Bandara. “Using early generations selection makes useful and meaningful sense to us, because when we select early generations, we are selecting lines that are very suitable for a particular region or environment. For the last 20 years, the lentil growing area was between 5,000 and 8,000 acres, but in 2010, it started increasing as a result of the adoption of new lines coming out from our cooperation. Now we have come to the point that lentils are becoming interesting and important in Southern Alberta.”

Northern Alberta is starting to show some interest in lentils as well, posing a new challenge for Dr. Bandara’s team: finding early maturing varieties that will grow in the thin black soil zone. Part of this work will involve 80 early maturing lines from ICARDA.

“People are asking us if there are any varieties we can grow up north,” said Dr. Bandara. “In fact in the northern Peace region, SARDA tests lentils, and we’ve found that the newly bred lines are doing very well. Again, we need very short season varieties so that we can grow them in moist areas and thin black soil so they can be able to harvest without having any yield loss or frost damage. We’re working on that right now.”

This increase in interest for Alberta-grown lentils has led to other consumer-based research as well. With direction and support from Alberta Pulse Growers, Dr. Bandara began a project in 2010 looking at the starch composition of lentils – specifically, the resistant starch, which can deliver some of the same health benefits of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Using the facilities at the University of Alberta, Dr. Bandara’s team found some differences in resistant starch in various lentil lines. The second stage of this project now focuses on eight herbicide-resistant red lentil lines, which are being tested for various starch components in four sites in Alberta and two sites in Saskatchewan.

By exploring different lentil lines that could both improve the growers’ experience and increase consumer demand, Dr. Bandara hopes to show growers the production potential of lentils and other pulse crops.

“In the past, high-value cash crops have been grown, and pulse crops have been pushed to the marginal area,” said Dr. Bandara. “Now with the knowledge and the international demand and the local consumption, growers are starting to show real interest. We have an obligation, as a public service, to help them to achieve their goals, and in that way, we can create a win-win situation.”

And Dr. Bandara feels that creating a breeding program, with a dedicated pulse breeder, at CDC South could further increase pulse production in Southern Alberta.


“Saskatchewan has a good breeding program; they’re very organized and diverse,” said Dr. Bandara. “So it’s difficult for us to initiate an independent lentil breeding program here. There’s big room for us, however, to initiate other pulse crop breeding here, like mung bean, soybean, or black gram, which would not be repeated at the University of Saskatchewan. If we placed a good breeding program at CDC South, we should be able to do marker assisted breeding programs here. In that way, we should be able to complement the Saskatchewan program.”

Some work has already been done on soybeans and mung beans. “We have already done a little crossing here at the greenhouse with the good variety mung beans, and we’re very interested in Roundup ready soybean lines. We hope to develop some varieties, and if we get a breeder, we should be able to do some genomic analysis and get some sort of marker that will identify disease resistance. We are slowly building that aspect.”

The challenge lies in finding funding for a dedicated pulse breeder at a time when public funding is decreasing and competition for those dollars is stiff. But despite those challenges, Dr. Bandara remains optimistic about pulses in Southern Alberta.

“Production, productivity, and quality is so high in Southern Alberta. It’s unbeatable compared to any other area,” he concluded. “I see a bright future in Southern Alberta.”

Notable Varieties

  • CDC Maxim
  • CDC Redcliff
  • CDC Redbow
  • CDC Rosebud
  • CDC Orion (chickpea)

How varieties get their names

“Among lentils, CDC Redcliff, CDC Redbow, and CDC Rosebud were doing very well here. During the discussions with Bert Vandenberg, I told him they are doing very well here. Let’s name them using Alberta towns. The same thing happens in Saskatchewan. If you go back to lines like CDC Rosetown, there’s so many varieties coming out from their program named after their little towns to respect these little towns.”