Tag Archives: Jing Chen

Canada’s barley crop needs a little help to adapt to climate change

“Building better barley” is the title for a Dec. 12, 2012 news release from the University of Alberta (by Bev Betkowski) on EurekAlert. They might have wanted to add the phrase “in the face of climate change” but that ruins the alliteration. From the news release,

As one of the top 10 barley producers in the world, Canada faces a problem of adapting to the ‘new normal’ of a warmer, drier climate.

The 2012 growing season was considered an average year on the Canadian Prairies, “but we still had a summer water deficit, and it is that type of condition we are trying to work with,” said Scott Chang, a professor of soil science in the University of Alberta’s Department of Renewable Resources in Edmonton, Canada.

The Dec. 5, 2012 article (which originated the news release) by Betkowski for the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta provides more detail about the why and the how,

Chang began teaming up with fellow crop scientist Anthony Anyia of Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures in 2006, following a severe drought in 2002 that dropped average crop yield in Alberta by about half. They are exploring the genetic makeup of barley and how the grain crop—a Canadian staple used for beer malt and animal feed—can be made more efficient in its water use and more productive. One of their latest studies, published in the journal Theoretical and Applied Genetics, explores how to increase yield in barley crops while using less water.

…The latest study was led by lead author Jing Chen, a former PhD student in Chang and Anyia’s lab. The group planted and harvested two common types of barley plants in test plots around Alberta, then analyzed the plants for genetic traits and other factors such as height, days to maturity and yield.

By studying the carbon isotope compositions of barley plants and their relationship with water-use efficiency, the researchers developed tools that plant breeders can use to improve selection efficiency for more water-efficient varieties. The latest findings stem from an ongoing collaboration that is ultimately aimed at bringing farmers a more stable breed of the plant that has less reliance on water and is less vulnerable to climate change.

Coincidentally (or not), the Canadian federal government in the person of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, within a week of the story and news release by Betkowski, congratulates itself for previous funding and new programs in two separate news releases.

The Harper Government Supports Canadian Barley Industry news release of Dec. 7, 2012 had this comment for the Alberta Barley Commission’s annual general meeting in Banff,

“As the one-year anniversary of the adoption of the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act approaches, western Canadian grain farmers are already enjoying the economic potential of an open market,” said Minister Ritz. “I would like to thank the Alberta Barley Commission for its long-standing leadership in support of marketing freedom, innovation and a strong future for barley producers.”

Canadian barley, known around the world for its high quality and superior characteristics, generated over $270 million in exports last year—a figure expected to continue to grow with the new marketing freedom options. The Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, which received Royal Assent on December 15, 2011, allows anyone to buy and sell wheat and barley. By unleashing the sector’s economic potential and entrepreneurial energy, the open grain market continues to usher in a new era of innovation and growth for Western Canada’s grain industry, helping attract investment, encourage innovation, create value-added jobs and build a stronger economy.

Additionally, the Harper government recently announced an AgriMarketing investment of more than $525,000 to enable the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, the Malting Industry Association of Canada, and the Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute to increase their competitiveness in new and existing markets through innovative marketing and communications and through the development of a Canadian Malt Barley Brand. [emphasis mine] Product testing and evaluations will also be done on new malting barley varieties, the current year’s harvest and cargo shipments to highlight the attributes of the current Canadian crop for international customers.

The Harper government’s long-term strategy to strengthen and modernize the barley industry includes renewing the mandate of the Crop Logistics Working Group, to improve the performance of the supply chain for barley and all crops, and to ensure that the agricultural sector can reap the rewards of a dynamic and growing global marketplace.

On the same day in Calgary, the Harper Government Announces Federal Growing Forward 2 Programs news release of Dec. 7, 2012 proclaims new programs and, presumably, there will be additional funding at some point,

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz today unveiled three new federal programs under Canada’s new agricultural policy framework Growing Forward 2 that will streamline investments in the agriculture and agri-food sector. The new programs will focus on strategic initiatives in innovation, competitiveness and market development to further strengthen the sector’s capacity to grow and prosper.

“These new Growing Forward 2 programs will build on the success of existing programs to provide more streamlined support to the sector to help it remain a world leader in agricultural innovation and trade,” said Minister Ritz. “We are making sure farmers and the entire sector have the tools and resources they need to stay ahead of the ever-changing demands of consumers.”

Three new federal programs will come into effect on April 1, 2013:

  • The AgriInnovation Program will focus on investments to expand the sector’s capacity to develop and commercialize new products and technologies.
  • The AgriMarketing Program will help industry improve its capacity to adopt assurance systems, such as food safety and traceability, to meet consumer and market demands. It will also support industry in maintaining and seizing new markets for their products through branding and promotional activities.
  • The AgriCompetitiveness Program will target investments to help strengthen the agriculture and agri-food industry’s capacity to adapt and be profitable in domestic and global markets.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada is proactively providing information to farmers and the industry so that they are familiar with the kind of support that will be available and so they may plan their applications well in advance. The AgriInnovation Program will begin accepting applications immediately, while AgriMarketing and AgriCompetitiveness will begin accepting applications early in the new year.

Growing Forward 2 represents a $3 billion investment over five years in strategic initiatives for innovation, competitiveness and market development, in addition to a full and comprehensive suite of business risk management programs that will continue to help farmers withstand severe market volatility and disasters. Investments in the three priority areas are critical to facilitating the sector’s expansion and leveraging of provincial-territorial and industry investments to increase productivity, growth and jobs.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for those who do not know, is from the province of Alberta.

This is an interesting example, whether the announcements are coincidental or not, of the relationship between research taking place in the universities, government and its programmes, and the international marketplace. For those interested in Chang’s research, here’s the citation for the paper from his webpage,

Chen, J., Chang, S.X. and Anya, A.O. 2012. Quantitative trait loci for water-use efficiency in barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) measured by carbon isotope discrimination under rain-fed conditions on the Canadian Prairies, Theoretical and Applied Genetics 125: 71–90.

Springer, publisher for the journal Theoretical and Applied Genetics, is offering a free preview during the month of December 2012 so you can view the article or any other one in the journal ’til Dec. 31, 2012.

One step diagnosis (nanotechnology-enabled) from University of Georgia (US)

The researchers haven’t tried this out on blood, saliva, or urine yet but this July 21, 2012 news item by Gary Thomas on Azonano hints that will be the next step,

Researchers at the University of Georgia have devised a single-step, quick and accurate technique using nanomaterials to detect pathogens and contaminants. The team demonstrated the capability of the new technique in detecting compounds like protein albumin and lactic acid in extremely diluted mixtures that comprised of dyes and chemicals.

The researchers conclude that the same method can be employed on biological mixtures like blood, saliva, food and urine to detect contaminants and pathogens.

The originating July 19, 2012 news release by Sam Fahmy for the University of Georgia provides more detail,

“The results are unambiguous and quickly give you a high degree of specificity,” said senior author Yiping Zhao, professor of physics in the UGA [University of Georgia] Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and director of the university’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center.

Zhao and his co-authors—doctoral students Jing Chen and Justin Abell and professor Yao-wen Huang of the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences—used nanotechnology to combine two well-known techniques and create their new diagnostic test. …

The first component of their two-in-one system uses a technique known as surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy, or SERS, which measures the change in frequency of a laser as it scatters off a compound. Every compound displays a series of distinctive changes in frequency, or Raman shifts, that are as unique as a fingerprint. The signal produced by Raman scattering is inherently weak, but Zhao and his colleagues have arrayed silver nanorods 1,000 times finer than the width of a human hair at a precise angle to significantly amplify the signal. In previous studies with Ralph Tripp in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine and chemist Richard Dluhy in the Franklin College, they demonstrated that the use of SERS with silver nanorods could identify viruses such as HIV and RSV isolated from infected cells.

Here’s why they needed a second technique and how it fits into the picture (from the news release),

“In a clinical setting, the sample that you obtain from patients typically contains bacteria or viruses as well as a lot of fluid—as in blood, urine or saliva—that contains biological agents that interfere with the signal you’re trying to detect,” Zhao said. “To develop a diagnostic that could be used at the point of care, we needed a way to separate those agents.”

Once again, the scientists turned to nanotechnology to create a next-generation diagnostic test. Using traditional thin layer chromatography, or TLC, scientists blot a drop of sample onto a porous surface. They then apply a solvent such as methanol to the sample, and the sample components separate based on how strongly they’re attracted to the solvent and the surface.

Study co-author Justin Abell, a doctoral student in the UGA College of Engineering, explained that TLC typically requires a large sample volume because the compound of interest soaks into the surface in addition to moving along it, like a stain on a rug. The silver nanorod surface that the researchers use, in contrast, allows them to use a miniscule amount of sample in a technique known as ultra-thin layer chromatography.

“In our case, the nanorods are acting as the detection medium but also as the separation medium,” Abell said, “so it’s a two-in-one system.”

To test their method, the researchers used mixtures of dyes, the organic chemical melamine, lactic acid and the protein albumin. In each case, they were able to directly identify the compounds of interest, even in samples diluted to concentrations below 182 nanograms per milliliter-roughly 200 billionths of a gram in a fifth of a teaspoon. And while the detection of viruses using techniques such as polymerase chain reaction can take days or even weeks and requires fluorescent labels, the on-chip method developed by the UGA researchers yields results in less than an hour without the use of molecular labels.

As for future plans to develop this application (from the news release),

The researchers are currently testing their technique with biological samples from Tripp’s lab that contain viruses, and Zhao said preliminary results are promising. He adds that while his team is focused on health and food safety applications, SERS and ultra-thin layer chromatography can be used to detect compounds of all types—everything from forensic materials at a crime scene to environmental pollutants. His team also is working with colleagues across campus to create an online encyclopedia that would allow technicians to identify viruses, bacteria, biomarkers and pharmaceuticals based on their distinctive Raman shifts.

“Every compound has a unique SERS spectrum,” Zhao said, “so this is a very robust technology whose applications are practically endless.”