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USask Global Institute for Food Security and federal partners to pilot first ‘omics’ and precision agriculture laboratory in Canada

Andrew Sharpe with OPAL’s PromethION high throughput DNA and RNA sequencing device (Credit: David Stobbe)

Canada’s first laboratory combining digital data analysis of plant genes and traits with the latest precision agriculture technologies to improve crop yield, profitability and sustainability in the agri-food sector is gearing up for a two-year pilot project this year at the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS).

With initial support from Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) and a recent strategic alliance involving Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the National Research Council (NRC), and USask as partners, the unique Omics and Precision Agriculture Laboratory—OPAL for short —will address critical research needs for Western Canadian producers and public and private research organizations.

“OPAL truly is a gem at the centre of the leading hub for agricultural research and innovation on this campus,” said USask Vice-President Karen Chad. “By bringing together the outstanding expertise of all the partners, this unique laboratory will speed up research and product development that will help feed the world, while growing Canada’s economy.”

GIFS will manage OPAL on behalf of the university and work with scientists from all parties to support the initiative. Over the next few months, OPAL services will be tested and refined, after which the unique laboratory will be available and accessible to academic and government researchers, as well as to external clients on a fee-for-service basis.

“Both AAFC and NRC have expertise in crop genomics and bioinformatics research and their analytical capabilities will provide a strong foundation for the development of new tools that will be of long-term strategic significance for precision agriculture applications in Western Canada,” said GIFS Chief Executive Officer Steve Webb.

“This exciting venture will bring advanced tools and digital agricultural technologies to market, supporting discovery and delivering innovative solutions to clients from Saskatchewan to the world. Outcomes will include accelerated crop breeding, reduced waste, and increased efficiency for clients in the burgeoning agtech sector that include agronomists, breeders, and producers.”

OPAL combines the latest agtech technologies—such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), remote aerial imaging of plants to gather digital phenomic data (plant trait images) using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), and in-field environmental monitoring—with digital DNA sequence information (genomics) to provide a complete profile of plant samples. “Omics” in the title of OPAL refers to this combined use of phenomics and genomics information.

Under the leadership of GIFS Director of Genomics and Bioinformatics Andrew Sharpe, OPAL will support state-of-the-art precision agriculture using high-throughput digital phenotyping of crops (harnessing data from aerial imaging) integrated with genomics data and analysis expertise.

“These innovations will contribute to permanent savings in CO2 emissions through reduced use of fossil-based fuels, fertilizers and plant protection products,” said Sharpe. “For instance, instead of applying water, fertilizers, and pesticides uniformly across entire fields, farmers will be able to target specific areas and use fewer quantities of inputs, while improving results in their fields.”

OPAL will provide agronomists with the information needed to provide the precise amount of fertilizer and plant protection products at the correct time and place to increase crop productivity and maximize yields in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner. Breeders will also be better able to select elite germplasm (plant genetic material for breeding new crop varieties) which will in turn benefit producers.

The ability to offer start-to-finish solutions differentiates OPAL from other laboratories that focus solely on data acquisition or analysis. OPAL will provide clients with solutions tailored to their crop data and analysis needs including: experiment design and workflow, genomic and/or phenomic technical support, and data acquisition and analysis, as well as consulting on technical details and costings for project planning.

Total capital and in-kind investment in OPAL to date from WD, NRC, AAFC, GIFS and USask totals almost $3.4 million.