Building better canola

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This article was published 17/04/2015 (2787 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Dennis Drewnik may save the agriculture industry millions of dollars.

A budding plant biologist, the Sisler High School student earned top prize at the Manitoba edition of the Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition on April 9.

Drewnik, 16, was awarded $5,000, a portion of which will go to Sisler, for his research project that focuses on manipulating the genetics of canola to make it resistant to Sclerotinia, a fungus that destroys the cash crop.  

Photo by Jared Story Sisler student Dennis Drewnik won top prize at the regional Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition for his research project focusing on how to manipulate the genetics of canola to make it resistance to the deadly fungus Sclerotinia.

“There are two types of canola that are currently being grown. One is called Westar and the other is called ZY821,” the Grade 11 student said. “Westar is the susceptible line. It gets destroyed by pathogens very quickly. ZY821 is the tolerant line but it’s not resistant, so the fungus will still destroy this plant but it takes a longer time.

“The goal for this project is to figure out what regulators can allow us to make the plant completely resistant, because there’s no known resistance in canola for certain fungal pathogens.”

“Basically, I’m trying to create genetically modified crops that will withstand pathogen attack. One of the main crops that is grown in Canada, Manitoba included, is canola. It’s a $20-billion industry, but it’s affected by fungal pathogens each year which cause millions of dollars in damage. This money could be used for a great deal of other things rather than just being wasted on dead crops.”

For the last four years, Drewnik has worked at the Belmonte Lab at the University of Manitoba with Dr. Mark Belmonte. When he was in Grade 8, Drewnik started flipping through his sister’s genetics textbook, as she was Belmonte’s cell biology class. He was immediately hooked.

“I saw that they were learning gene expression at the time and I just thought it was a really cool idea, how everything is so interwoven and how every living organism basically uses the same principle and it’s through this principle that we have life,” Drewnik said.

Drewnik’s sister introduced him to Belmonte, who took him on as a “really undergraduate student.” Belmonte said Drewnik is a fantastic scientist.

“He’s amazing. He really brings a lot of excitement and enthusiasm to the lab,” Belmonte said. “He brings a lot of passion and he studies like I’ve never seen anyone study before. He’ll read research papers that are five or more years ahead of where he should be.”

While the term “GMO” frightens a lot of people, Drewnik said he and Belmonte are simply trying to increase canola’s natural defence mechanisms.

“What we’re doing is enhancing the plant to use its already built-in mechanisms to work at 100 per cent efficiency,” Drewnik said. “We’re not adding anything that’s harmful into the plant or anything that’s potentially harmful to us and other environmental conditions.

“GMOs are a much better approach than what we do now to help the plants fight off these funguses, which are fungicides and other pesticides that are very environmentally damaging. Manipulating this crop is the better choice.”

Drewnik will compete in the Sanofi Biogenius Canada national final, which takes place May 25 and 26 in Ottawa. The top prize in that competition is a place at the 2015 International BioGENEius Challenge in Philadelphia in June.

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