The canola kid

Sisler student Dennis Drewnik is building a better cash crop

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This article was published 25/04/2016 (2344 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Dennis Drewnik’s canola research is the cream of the crop.

Drewnik, 17, a Grade 12 student at Sisler High School, was named the winner of the Manitoba edition of the Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition on April 12. The budding plant biologist will now compete in the national version of the biotechnology competition, to be held May 2 and 3 in Ottawa.

Drewnik won for his research project that focuses on manipulating the genetics of canola to make it resistant to a fungal pathogen that causes blackleg. The disease destroys canola crops and costs the agriculture industry a lot of cash.

Photo by Jared Story Sisler student Dennis Drewnik will represent Manitoba at the Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition in Ottawa on May 2 and 3. Drewnik won the regional version of the competition for his work on manipulating the genetics of canola to make it resistant to blackleg disease.

“It (blackleg) causes $1.5 billion US in damage to a variety of crops across the globe,” Drewnik said. “Canola is a $20 billion industry and in western Canada its one of the major pathogens that affects our yields.”

This is the second-straight year Drewnik has won the regional version of the Sanofi Biogenius competition. Last year, his project on protecting canola from the fungus sclerotinia earned him a fourth-place finish at nationals.

For his current project, Drewnik said he’s working with two different lines of canola, Westar, a variety susceptible to blackleg, and DF78, which is a resistant line, well, for now.

“In the last few years, blackleg resistance has been breaking down in all the popular varieties of canola and for this reason we need to develop new genetic resistances in order to feed a population that’s estimated to skyrocket to 9 billion people by 2050,” Drewnik said.

Drewnik said the main contributor to this pathogen problem is evolution.

“One thing that farmers to do to prevent the evolution of a pathogen is rotating their crops, not growing canola on the same land year after year,” Drewnik said.

“But, since canola is such an amazing crop to grow in terms of how much yield it produces and how much money you can obtain from it, a lot of farmers don’t pay attention to that and grow it in consecutive years, allowing the pathogen to evolve and those genetic resistances to break down.”

Drewnik said, through his research on Arabidopsis, a canola-like plant, he’s made numerous findings, including the identification of four novel blackleg-resistant genes, two of which were previously unknown.  

Supplied photo Dennis Drewnik and his mentor, Dr. Mark Belmonte, pose for a photo by a canola plant.

For the last five years, Drewnik has worked with Dr. Mark Belmonte, a plant biologist at the University of Manitoba. Belmonte said Drewnik’s passion to plant biology is remarkable.   

“I don’t think there’s anything stopping him. He has been gaining a ton of momentum over the past five years that I’ve been working with him,” Belmonte said. “He started from the ground up, really getting a good handle on the computational side and how to analyze large-scale data sets and now he’s getting into some of the practical or translational applications to this work.”

In addition to potentially saving crops and saving the agriculture industry money, Drewnik’s work could help save the environment, i.e., cut down on the use of chemicals in crop protection.

“There are fungicides that have been developed, although a) they’re not economically sustainable and b) they are environmentally damaging, with nutrient run-off into water systems and the bio-amplification of those chemicals in our foods and other ecosystems,” Drewnik said.

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