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Corteva and McGill University Target Pre-Harvest Sprouting Tolerance

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 Written By David Pinzon

Demonstrating collaboration across industry and academia, Corteva Agriscience and McGill University together challenge cereal grain pre-harvest sprouting.

Gleaning insight into research in industry can be challenging in an academic setting. Although the number of collaborations between industry and academia are on the rise, many graduate students and postdocs still have little, if any, interaction with industry. Through Open Innovation, Corteva Agriscience actively provides opportunities to develop collaborative relationships between academic and industry scientists. An Open Innovation project with McGill University to improve pre-harvest sprouting tolerance in wheat and barley demonstrates what is possible.

Recently, David Pinzon, Regulatory Affairs Manager for Corteva, sat down with Dr. Jaswinder Singh, Associate Professor of Plant Science at McGill University, and his former master’s student Ms. Sukhjiwan Kaur Kadoll, for an engaging discussion about their collaboration with Corteva through Open Innovation. The story begins with a proposal Dr. Singh submitted via the Corteva Open Innovation Proposal Portal to collaborate with Corteva. The goal? To further understand barley and wheat candidate genes’ roles in seed germination, dormancy and pre-harvest sprouting (PHS). Ultimately, they may use this information to develop novel PHS tolerant breeding lines through CRISPR-based genome editing.  

Pre-harvest sprouting: an economic and scientific challenge in cereals

PHS involves the premature germination of the grain while still attached to the mother plant before harvest. This leads to reduced seed quality and greatly diminished economic value of the harvested grains. In fact, the annual cost of PHS to the global wheat industry exceeds $1 billion per year, and a loss of $100 million was documented recently in Canada alone. In addition to its potential economic impact, PHS is a challenge for several more reasons, including the trait’s close relationship with germination and dormancy as well as its unpredictable occurrence which depends on moist or wet conditions during a specific point during the growing season. Fortunately, a crop’s own genetics can hold a variety of solutions to help it overcome PHS – and genome editing may be the key to unlocking them.

Genome editing can deliver precise modifications to elite crop varieties, diminishing linkage drag or the carryover of undesired genetic information that often occurs with standard breeding approaches. For this reason, CRISPR was chosen as the preferred tool to make specific modifications to candidate genes associated with PHS in wheat and barley. However, in addition to the scientific components of the project, this article aims to share Dr. Singh’s and Ms. Kadoll’s experience collaborating with Corteva.

IMG-Induced PHS in Wheat_cropped.jpg
Photo courtesy of McGill University An example of preharvest sprouting in wheat, severely impacting grain quality.
IMG-Induced PHS in Wheat_cropped.jpg
Photo courtesy of McGill University An example of preharvest sprouting in wheat, severely impacting grain quality.

Cooking up a successful collaboration

A recipe for successful collaboration calls for several key ingredients. It starts with complementary capabilities and motivations between the parties, followed by aligned project expectations and goals. Before moving forward with a collaboration, Corteva ensures there is a good fit with our Research and Development interests and assesses whether our technology can advance the project.

The scope of this project was a great match for both parties, bringing together Dr. Singh’s expertise in gene discovery for PHS toleranceand Corteva’s expertise in genome editing. Furthermore, the sustainable production of high-quality food in the same amount of land is top of mind for all involved, resulting in a great opportunity to collaborate.

"We had all the key components that make a collaboration successful. It was true partnership where everyone teamed up for success.” 

   -Dr. Jaswinder Singh, McGill University

In our discussion, Dr. Singh shared that collaborations between academia and industry open new avenues for innovation. He also pointed out that much of academic research involves fundamental discoveries, with industry researchers more inclined to use applied science. As Dr. Singh pointed out, marrying the two is an opportunity to bring academic research from the library shelves into the field. Fundamental research is essential, but it must be transferred to benefit our communities. This sentiment is also held by funding agencies like The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). In fact, this project received additional funding as part of an NSERC Collaborative Research and Development grant, providing an extra boost to help researchers accomplish their ambitious goals.

As is the case with all research, successes come with obstacles that experienced scientists have learned how to navigate. For most research collaborations, finalizing agreements is one such challenge, but the effort and wait is worthwhile. Agreements are a necessary ingredient to ensure expectations and goals are aligned, transparency exists among stakeholders, and there is agreement about how, when and where to release the results. Engaging in these types of collaborations produces results that may not otherwise be possible and has a high societal impact and value.

Dr. Singh noted that industrial support can extend beyond monetary funding to in-kind resources, including access to facilities, industry know-how, and the best available technologies (e.g., Baby boom and Wuschel transformation technology2). The continuous shared effort helps build a trusted relationship, with both parties contributing to the project lab work and communicating consistently so the team can work together toward a single goal.  

IMG-Sukhjiwan and Singh_cropped.jpg
Photo courtesy of McGill University Dr. Singh and Ms. Kadoll review project progress in the laboratory.
IMG-Sukhjiwan and Singh_cropped.jpg
Photo courtesy of McGill University Dr. Singh and Ms. Kadoll review project progress in the laboratory.

A student’s perspective on collaborating with industry

The interaction with industry exposes university lab members to different research approaches and provides opportunities to learn how to organize tasks more efficiently, meet deadlines, and scale up their work. These are all key attributes to building job-readiness. In addition, these skills are transferrable for scientists who choose to stay in academia.

Ms. Kadoll used this collaboration as a chance to gain additional experience she would not have gained otherwise. When she heard about this opportunity, she was excited to collaborate and curious about what working with industry is really like, but at the same time nervous as she did not know what to expect. Once she joined the team meetings all her hesitations were gone. Ms. Kadoll was able to participate openly, ask questions and get helpful advice as the project progressed. She feels this opportunity sets her up well to work in industry and that this type of opportunity should be readily available to more graduate students.

“As a student, we know only about the academic side and not the industrial side. As a result, industry may miss out on a lot of gems. Talented scientists may choose academia because they simply don’t have as much insight into opportunities in industry,” shared Ms. Kadoll.

The conversation concluded with an important question: would Dr. Singh recommend collaborating with industry to others? He said, “Absolutely. The public-private partnership is the key for future success where fundamental research marries applied science. This is a big need and truly a lab-to-land and a field-to-fork program.”

He added that the partnership with Corteva was an excellent example of what can be achieved when all the necessary ingredients are in place. “We had all the key components that make a collaboration successful. It was true partnership where everyone teamed up for success.” 

If you have a solution to one of the many agricultural challenges and you would like to collaborate to bring it to fruition, we invite you to submit your proposal.

Corteva is committed to enabling the research community and encouraging wide adoption of gene editing to improve agriculture and make licenses to CRISPR-Cas9 available to nonprofit organizations, academics, and commercial enterprises.


1Singh, M., Singh, S., Randhawa, H., Singh, J. (2013) Polymorphic homoeolog of key gene of RdDM pathway, ARGONAUTE4_9 class is associated with pre-harvest sprouting in wheat (Triticum aestivum L.). PLOS ONE 8 (10): e77009. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077009.

Lowe, K., Wu, E., Wang, N., Hoerster, G., Hastings, C., Cho, M. J., Scelonge, C., Lenderts, B., Chamberlin, M., Cushatt, J., Wang, L., Ryan, L., Khan, T., Chow-Yiu, J., Hua, W., Yu, M., Banh, J., Bao, Z., Brink, K., Igo, W., Rudrappa, B., Shamseer, P.M., Bruce, W., Newman, L., Shen, B., Zheng, P., Bidney, D., Falco, C., Register, J., Zhao, Z., Xu, D., Jones, T., Gordon-Kamm, W. (2016). Morphogenic Regulators Baby boom and Wuschel Improve Monocot Transformation. The Plant Cell28(9), 1998–2015.

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