Help for Canada's strained canola supply

Canada Research Chair validates Guanqun Chen's work to increase seed oil production

Sarah Pratt - 20 November 2018

The demand for vegetable oils as dietary lipids, renewable biomaterials and biofuels is steadily increasing worldwide.

Despite canola being the top crop in terms of revenue and acres seeded in Canada, ever increasing demand for seed oil has strained Canada's ability to supply the world. Guanqun Chen, assistant professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, is working to help crops produce more oil without using more land.

Global consumption of vegetable oils is expected to double by 2030. Canola contributes more than $26.7 billion dollars per year to the Canadian economy and is responsible for more than 250,000 jobs in various sectors.

Increasing seed oil production is necessary to fulfill the global demand and benefit Canada. Canola is the second largest oil seed crop in the world and Canada is the leading producer and exporter.

"A sudden canola shortage (e.g. due to weather) would result in revenue losses for farmers and the related industry chain in Canada," said Chen. "Globally, the price of not only canola oil but also vegetable oil would increase. Also, since canola meal is used as animal feed, shortages would cause problems in the livestock industry."

Chen's research addresses the canola shortfall by focusing on increasing our understanding of how seed oil is formed and developing approaches to improve the yield and composition of seed oil. This knowledge will better enable Chen to create special high-value oils for beneficial food supplements and industrial applications such as biofuels.

Chen's emerging research recently earned him a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in plant lipid biotechnology.

"It's an honour," said Chen, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council-funded researcher. "Tier 2 CRC proves my potential to be a leading researcher in the plant lipid biotechnology field, and I hope this can benefit my research and provide me with more collaboration opportunities."

Chen completed his undergraduate and master's degrees at Tianjin University of Science and Technology in Tianjin, China, a coastal city southwest of Beijing. After completing his PhD at the University of Hong Kong, he did his postdoctoral work here at the University of Alberta.

"The two most important things that attracted me to the U of A were the CRC opportunity and how well-equipped the lab here is," said Chen.

Chen's research includes metabolic engineering of plants, developing crops with better characteristics, and genetic approaches to increasing seed oil content.

"In addition to seed oil content, I want to use biotechnology to produce crops with better resistance to stresses such as heat, cold and diseases," said Chen. "I also want to expand my research beyond plants and explore algae and yeast to produce high-value oils and bioproducts."

Chen's Tier 2 CRC professorship lasts for five years and is renewable once. The CRC program is a federal government initiative to attract and retain world-class researchers. There are 2,285 chair allocations and 76 participating universities. Of the current filled chairs, 32 per cent are female. The U of A has just over 100 chairs.