Jennifer Zantinge

Dr. Jennifer Zantinge is a research scientist and Lead of the Field Crop Development Centre Biotech lab at Olds College Centre for Innovation. The biotech lab is focused on translational research: identifying, developing, validating and implementing new research technologies and tools that will improve the quality and speed of variety development. 

Zantinge earned a Ph.D., specialized in molecular biology, genetics and pathobiology, from the University of Guelph.

Her research group has been identifying QTLs, genes and haplotypes linked to trait variation, developing genetic markers, utilizing bioinformatics, and applying reliable high-through genotyping methods for the breeding programs. The group’s goals are to improve selection for disease resistance, quality traits and yield in cereal crops. Over the last 20 years, Zantinge has led the development of new barley varieties with improved malt quality and increased disease resistance through the application of marker assisted selection (MAS).

Zantinge is knowledgeable across multiple scientific disciplines including genomics, molecular biology, microbiology, biochemistry, bioinformatics, crop breeding, and plant and animal pathology.

Yadeta Kabeta

Dr. Yadeta Kabeta is a barley breeder at the Field Crop Development Centre (FCDC) at Olds College of Agriculture and Technology. The FCDC feed and forage breeding program is the only Canadian barley breeding program that specifically focuses on breeding barley for those uses.

Kabeta was raised in Ethiopia on a mixed livestock and grain farm, where he helped by weeding crops, tending to the animals and aiding with harvest.

He received his bachelor of science and master’s degrees from Alemaya University of Agriculture. After graduation, he began working as an assistant plant breeder and earned a Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics from the University of Saskatchewan.

In 2008, Kabeta joined the FCDC, developing barley varieties suitable for malt, feed or forage end-uses that are adapted to Alberta and Western Canada.

With the breeding program, he focuses on grain yields, agronomics, and disease resistance. For agronomics, Kabeta is looking for varieties that have improved lodging resistance and early maturity. With disease resistance, he aims for varieties with multiple disease resistances such as FHB, scald, net blotch, spot blotch, smuts and stem rust.

A New Breed of Breeders

Story written by Geoff Geddes | The Word Warrior

For the barley sector, creating new and improved lines is vital to staying competitive, both at home and abroad. To that end, research is tapping into technology to enhance the output of breeding programs with the project “Evaluating new next-generation strategies to boost breeding efficiency for Feed and Forage Production in Barley and Triticale”.

“For the past five years, we have been looking seriously at our breeding programs and analyzing how we can make better progress,” said Dr. Yadeta Kabeta, Research Scientist, Barley Breeder at the Field Crop Development Center (FCDC), Olds College of Agriculture and Technology in Olds, Alberta.

“How do we use the latest molecular tools to reduce the average time to produce a new variety from 10 years to 7 years and get lines to market faster?”

Around 2018, scientists at the FCDC noticed that the germplasm they were working with was somehow different from that of other breeding programs. As a result, genetic markers developed elsewhere were not always effective in selecting traits of interest to these researchers.

“To address that issue, we wanted to develop strong genetic populations from our germplasm that would meet the needs of local and western Canadian growers,” said Dr. Jennifer Zantinge, Research Scientist - Molecular Breeding, at the FCDC at Olds College of Agriculture and Technology.

Using a “parent” barley variety that was well adapted for Alberta, they crossed it with nine elite lines from around the world, including both malt and feed. Their goal is to identify certain genetic markers that can be employed with Alberta feed and forage lines to enhance key traits, starting with disease resistance.

“For this project, we focused more on feed, as we already have some effective molecular markers for malt,” said Zantinge. “Especially for protection from disease, precision in breeding is critical. In the past, when we targeted resistance to scald, for example, we wound up with too much beta-glucan.”

In addition to seeking markers for resistance to four common barley diseases, including Fusarium head blight (FHB), scald, net blotch (in two forms: NFNB and SFNB) and spot blotch, scientists are targeting other critical traits: earliness, lodging resistance, yield, nitrogen use efficiency and drought resistance. Zantinge and her team hope to have results on the disease side by 2024.

“Some of these traits are the result of many genes, so targeting one or two of them doesn’t work as well,” said Zantinge. “Consequently, we are using a newer technology called genomic selection. Instead of focusing on specific regions, this approach looks at the entire genome and applies statistical analysis to predict how well this trait will perform in the field.”

Regardless of the targeted trait, the goal remains the same: assist breeders and growers by shortening the breeding process and enhancing the precise selection of lines.

“When you make crosses, you always want to produce lines that are superior to the parent, but that is not easy with the traditional approach,” said Zantinge. “We need all the tools in the toolbox to find those few offspring that outdo the parent, and using genetic markers is a vital element in achieving that goal.”

While scientists are pleased with the results thus far, they acknowledge that progress on some fronts will require a broader approach.

“As we start working with traits affected by the environment, it takes on a greater complexity,’ said Zantinge. “At that point, we will need more hands and more labs collaborating to produce effective data.”

Going forward, the work from this project should continue to pay dividends for the industry.

“As we gain the ability to perform more and better-quality selection with markers, it opens other opportunities. If there is a new development in the industry, such as demands changing or other diseases emerging, we can incorporate a new trait to address it. Our progress makes the industry more responsive and agile in a rapidly evolving world.”

Because they are now working from a wide germplasm database, the FCDC teams feel they can adapt more easily to the challenges of climate change and make barley more resilient in the process.

In the meantime, they are helping the barley sector and building a blueprint for success.

“At our lab, we are trying to forge a foundation of knowledge on the genetics and physical characteristics of barley lines,” said Kabeta. “I see this as a first step in developing tools that can more precisely select those traits that will bring the most value to breeders and producers.”

Did you know?

  • Barley is one of the founder crops of Old World agriculture. Archaeological remains of barley grains found at various sites in the Fertile Crescent (crescent-shaped region in Western Asia) indicate that the crop was domesticated about 8000 B.C.
  • Barley holds great genetic potential for environmental adaptation and for development of cultivars resistant/tolerant to various abiotic stresses, including drought, which is considered one of the major barley production-limiting factors in rainfed agriculture.
  • Alberta produces more than half of Canada’s barley, a crop that is used primarily (80 per cent) for feed.