University of Saskatchewan gets biggest federal research grant ever

Agricultural research at the University of Saskatchewan is about to grow.

Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) awarded $37.2 million

Mary Buhr, dean of agriculture and bioresources at the U of S, examines an experimental lentil crop in a climate-controlled growth chamber. (Kathy Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Agricultural research at the University of Saskatchewan is about to grow. 

The university has been awarded a $37.2 million grant — its largest-ever federal research grant — to design crops for global food security.

The university's Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) will receive the money over seven years from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. The project will combine plant genomics (DNA sequencing and analysis) with crop phenotyping (the identification of useful traits) using high performance computing and advanced imaging technology, the university said.

"The power of plant genomics lies in our ability to analyse massive data sets of DNA to identify which genes are needed to breed a crop with superior performance," GIFS executive director Maurice Moloney said in a media release. 

"However, crop phenotyping is not yet a digital activity. Identifying useful traits are still done manually by plant breeders — an approach as old as agriculture itself. If images of these traits can be digitized, they can be analysed rapidly and then used to match specific DNA sequences to agronomic traits. This will greatly accelerate plant-breeding efforts."

The university's dean of agriculture and bioresources, Mary Buhr, said a team of engineers and specialists in computer technology, imaging and agriculture worked intensely for about two months on the grant application.

"It could never have happened anywhere but here because we've got the basic capacity — and honestly — no other community could work together the way this one does," Buhr said. "It's really a cool place to be part of."

She said the university will be hiring more people for the project, although it's too soon to say exactly how many. And she anticipates some discoveries will be spun into new business ventures.

GIFS is a public-private partnership that was founded in 2012 by the U of S, the Government of Saskatchewan and PotashCorp. The project will involve partnerships with four Canadian universities, three universities from around the world and more than 15 private and public organizations. 

The U of S is one of five Canadian universities picked to get funding under the program. More than 35 post-secondary institutions competed for funding.