CASE STUDY – Broad-range disease resistance in greenhouse vegetables

Researchers at the University of Toronto have discovered a family of genes that make plants resistant to a broad range of plant diseases. Over the last several years, they have been working with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (Vineland) to further develop these genes, using a reverse genetics platform founded on Deep Variant Scanning (DVS). The goal is to generate broad-range disease resistance in Canada’s top three greenhouse vegetable crops – tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers – protecting them from multiple pathogens, reducing losses and increasing yield. The result will be new varieties of vegetables giving Canadian growers a competitive advantage.

Outcomes and achievements

Protecting yield in greenhouse vegetable crops. Greenhouse crop losses from plant diseases can approach 20 per cent in any given year, placing a huge burden on Canadian greenhouse vegetable growers. Harnessing the power of reverse genetics, the development of new vegetable varieties resilient to Canada’s major crop diseases will protect yields, maximize profits and sustain growth for commercial growers, with annual benefits to the Canadian greenhouse industry of around $26 million.

Environmental sustainability. Amidst reduced disease pressure, the use of pesticides is expected to decline – a win-win solution for growers, consumers and the environment. Further environmental benefits will likely accrue from increased crop yields in the form of reduced inputs, such as water and fertilizer, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. 

Meeting consumer demands. More resilient crops will create a robust supply of high-quality produce to the marketplace. High regulatory costs and a lack of consumer acceptance have also created a market pull away from transgenic crops. This project uses an alternative platform for trait development, delivering agronomic traits in greenhouse vegetables while providing products that align with consumer demands.

Enhancing the pipeline of value-added commercial greenhouse crops. This project, still in progress, has identified promising gene variants in all three of Canada’s major greenhouse crops. Phenotyping is currently underway and Vineland’s breeding program is already incorporating disease-resistance traits carried by these unique lines into elite breeding material to get a head-start on creating Canada’s first hybrid vegetables with broad-range disease resistance.

This project is expected to generate multiple patents and licensed technologies, with new traits and varieties commercialized to maximize value for growers and the Canadian horticultural sector. Although initially focused on tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers, the knowledge, experience and intellectual property gained from this work will be applied to other fruits and vegetables, creating an exciting opportunity to develop new disease-resistant crops and to support on-going growth in the sector. Vineland, as a not-for-profit organization, will reinvest all revenue in research, fulfilling its mandate to drive innovation and create economic growth in Canada’s horticulture sector.