From bugs to vaccines, genomics to biopesticides

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s London research station touches farms from crops to livestock

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Tucked away in a quiet residential neighbourhood in London, Ont., is a building where researchers delve into some of agriculture’s most pressing issues.

The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) London Research and Development Centre has scientists working on myriad projects, such as combatting new invasive pests threatening fruit crops, using insect meal as a protein source, seeking antimicrobial sources for livestock, finding mycotoxin-fighting enzymes and using plants to develop livestock vaccines.

Why it matters: Agriculture research ensures Canadian growers continue to be productive, market-leading producers.

Established in 1951, the centre sits on about 60 acres, with another about 75 acres in Vineland where most tree fruit research takes place. It’s also linked to Western University’s Biotron facility, which carries out research into the impacts of climate change on plants, insects and micro-organisms.

Della Johnston, director of Research, Technology and Development, said the centre covers three main areas: soil and water quality, crop genomics, bioproducts and biopesticides, and protection and improvement of fruits and vegetables.

Entomologist Tara Gariepy and her team work on minimizing impacts from invasive insect pests in Canada, as well as monitoring for potential future threats.

Stomping invasive insects

Brown marmorated stinkbug, an Asian pest that’s been moving north from the United States since its accidental introduction there in the 1990s, has been found in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia so far, according to Gariepy. Fruit trees are currently the biggest concern, but it also attacks berries, grapes, vegetables, field crops, and ornamental trees and shrubs.

Her team is looking at parasitic wasps as a potential control. The wasps lay eggs inside other insects, which destroys the host bugs.

“We often find stinkbug in natural areas so biological controls are more environmentally friendly,” she said, adding a targeted release of the wasps will take place once permission is granted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Another pest on her radar is spotted lanternfly, also from Asia, that has been found in Pennsylvania. It feeds on grapes, apples, tender fruit and tree species like willow, poplar, sycamore and maple. A monitoring program is expected to start next summer in Canada, even though it hasn’t been found north of the border yet.

“We have some projects in Asia where we are doing work to see what attacks it there, so that when it gets here, we can take action quickly,” she said.

Insects for poultry feed

Microbiologist Michael Fruci’s expertise is antimicrobials and antimicrobial resistance mechanisms. He’s working on a project to evaluate the use of insect protein — black soldier fly — as a protein source in broiler chicken rations in place of soybeans.

Research has shown that a larval extract from the black soldier fly has antimicrobial properties, so Fruci is investigating whether it could be used as an alternative to antibiotics.

“So far we’ve tested how to formulate this into feed,” he said, adding the next step is to evaluate growth performance and impact on bird health by testing different concentrations of insect meal and comparing it to conventional rations.

“We’re working with a company that is using fruit and vegetable waste to grow the flies — it’s all part of the circular economy,” he said.

Enzymes to manage DON

Last year was one of the most challenging in recent memory for mycotoxins in grain crops, especially deoxynivalenol (DON). Finding a solution to that problem through enzymes that can break down the toxins is one of Chris Garnam’s main goals.

He’s working with a company that engineers yeast strains for ethanol production that’s interested in incorporating the DON-fighting enzymes Garnam has discovered into their yeasts.

“If the enzymes can break down the toxins, you could buy contaminated grain and treat it or treat it in the field,” he said, which would give growers more options to market their crops.

“There are many different applications points; discovering the enzymes is one thing, how to use them is another.”

AAFC recently acquired new lab equipment that has allowed Garnham and his colleagues to conduct more precise work with enzymes. A machine for protein purification, for example, allows separation of proteins by size. Partnerships with Western University help with characterizing proteins.

Plants producing vaccines

Rima Manassa is working on several projects based on the concept of plants as bioreactors that can be used to produce vaccines and antibodies for livestock against diseases like porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) and bovine respiratory disease (BRD).

“We take a protein from the virus that triggers immune response in animals and we produce this in plants,” she explained.

In PED, for example, most vaccines have been ineffective, live attenuated virus vaccines. Manassa has produced virus-like particles in plants that display epitopes or antigens capable of stimulating an immune response to PED. Work is now underway to make sure the proteins are aligned correctly before moving into animal trials.

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