Knowledge Centre - Highlights of Research and Innovation Projects

Crops growing in a farm field

How research and innovation in agri-food, agri-business and rural development can benefit you.

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OMAFRA funds many projects through a number of different research programs. Outcomes from a few of these projects are highlighted below.

Project outcomes from the OMAFRA - University of Guelph Partnership

Using tobacco plants to help fight cancer (Agri-Food Yearbook page 13)

Tobacco is notorious for causing cancer, but now it's helping to fight it.

Tobacco plants are being modified to create a biosimilar version of the breast cancer antibody trastuzumab (trade name Herceptin), which stops tumours from growing and encourages the body's immune system to attack. The low-cost alternative antibody is being positioned as a product that can help cut healthcare costs, particularly when Herceptin's patent expires in three years. Trastuzumab made using tobacco plants is slated to be on the market in 2016. Scientists have completed testing in mouse models and found that the plant-based antibody was as effective in reducing the size of breast cancer tumours as the animal-based Herceptin.

Professor Chris Hall of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph developed the recombinant antibody technology used to create the plant-produced antibody. A Guelph firm, PlantForm, is licensing this technology, which would see tobacco plants serve as a host for the production of therapeutic antibodies. "Traditionally it costs $450 million to produce 5,000 litres of an animal-cellbased antibody," says Hall. "We can build a 12-acre facility with equipment and equivalent amount of antibody for $80 million."

Versatile, environmentally friendly corn particles could serve many purposes (Agri-Food Yearbook page 10)

Ontario cornfields could one day be the source of not only food, feed and fuel but also eco-friendly paints, age-defying super-moisturizers and non-toxic drug treatments - all thanks to tiny particles discovered in a University of Guelph lab. The particles are sugar polymers - sugar molecules bonded together. Their unique properties make them a promising platform technology with myriad applications.

Researchers are generating these revolutionary new particles from Ontario corn. They say the particles could serve as non-toxic, biodegradable replacements for engineered nanoparticles or petroleum ingredients. This could make any product more environmentally friendly, be it paint, cosmetics or even biomedical treatments. "The way the sugars are arranged gives them unique physical and chemical properties," says University of Guelph physics professor and project leader John Dutcher. "There are enzymes within the body and within the environment that can naturally break down these particles, so you don't have to worry about them building up in the environment."

Robots get a grip on greenhouse produce (Agri-Food Yearbook Page 18)

Intelligent vegetable-harvesting robots could emerge as a revolutionary technology for the Canadian greenhouse industry. University of Guelph researchers say these machines have the potential to decrease labour costs by up to 70 per cent, improve the market quality of vegetables and enhance the supply chain, giving Canadian greenhouse growers a competitive edge.

Engineering professors Medhat Moussa and Hussein Abdullah have created what they call the Guelph Intelligent Greenhouse Automation System (GIGAS). Paired with a robotic manufacturing arm, GIGAS can identify and pick ripe tomatoes, as well as perform de-leafing and pruning operations. This cuts down on plant waste dramatically and boosts vegetable quality. GIGAS works by mimicking a human arm's movement. A special "gripper" with three aluminum and steel fingers moves in a pinching motion to pluck tomatoes, while three palm-sized cameras work together to guide the arm towards the ripest tomatoes. The researchers believe GIGAS could soon help position Canadian greenhouse growers as an increasingly reliable, attractive source of produce.

Agricultural Production Project Outcomes

Feeding helpful bacteria boosts chicken immunity

Many bacteria can be a health hazard to consumers, but University of Guelph researchers say helpful bacteria called probiotics can be fed to chickens to reduce illness-causing bacteria - boosting chicken immunity and consumer health.

Prof. Shayan Sharif, Department of Pathobiology, and a team of collaborators are studying the effect of probiotics on chickens' intestinal linings to see how the bacteria interact with Salmonella and how overall animal health is influenced.

By having a clearer understanding of these functions, Sharif hopes to promote probiotics as a health-management tool for chicken producers.

"Once we understand how probiotics reduce Salmonella, the impact will go beyond academic achievement to become a valuable tool in the industry," he says. "Producers will have a way to prevent illness in chickens, and the risk of food poisoning from poultry products will fall."

The research team is trying to understand how probiotics control Salmonella and to quantify the impact of Salmonella reduction in the animal's intestine, where bacteria usually reside.

Sharif also wants to know if probiotics create a heightened immune response in poultry. He suggests that helpful bacteria might send a cue to the chicken's health defences, spurring action against harmful bacteria. Physical evidence of this could be seen in the blood and gut secretion samples being analyzed at the Ontario Veterinary College.

Special chicken feeds containing probiotics are already available in Canada, but they're marketed as feed supplements, not feed with medicinal value. To make medicinal claims, makers of probiotic feeds would need to get approval from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says Sharif.

This research is funded by the Poultry Industry Council, the Saskatchewan Chicken Industry Development Fund, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council/Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Partnerships Program and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Researchers develop new device to quickly identify scrapie disease in sheep

Detecting scrapie and other related degenerative diseases could soon be easier, thanks to a sensor developed by University of Guelph researchers.

Professors Gordon Hayward and Warren Stiver of the School of Engineering have created a device that can detect protein particles called prions, which are thought to be at the root of degenerative diseases such as scrapie.

"Our goal is to develop a quick and inexpensive way to detect the prions that cause these deadly diseases," says Stiver. "We hope everyone from meat inspectors to veterinarians will have access to it."

Scrapie is a fatal degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system of sheep. It is traditionally detected by euthanizing suspected animals and submitting brain material for laboratory testing.

But the Guelph team's device, called an acoustic prion sensor, is being developed for use on live animals and provides results in about two hours. It uses quartz crystals to detect when prion proteins abnormally miss-fold in samples taken from the environment, nerve tissue or bodily fluids. The researchers say the instrument's speed and accuracy mean that infected animals can be more easily pinpointed, reducing the need to dispose of entire herds to eradicate the disease. They also say it could be used for other degenerative diseases in the same family as scrapie, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle, chronic wasting disease in elk and deer and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

With further development of the sensor, Hayward and Stiver hope to see this technology used routinely for exports to eliminate the need for border closures. This could prevent drastic export losses such as those seen in the 2002 BSE crisis. The initial detection of an infected cow in Alberta cost the Canadian economy $6.3 billion before a U.S. ban on Canadian beef imports was lifted in 2005.

"We have proven the principle," says Hayward. "We intend to expand the evidence and answer important questions to support the development of a commercial device."

The Guelph team worked with research partner Dr. A. Balachandran at the National Reference Laboratory for Scrapie and Chronic Wasting Disease of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Ottawa to develop the sensor.

Financial support was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, PrioNet Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food Rural Affairs.

Sugar beets that can't be beat

Sugar beets have made a comeback in Ontario, rebounding from no acreage forty years ago to around 10,000 acres today. But the beets' quality going to market has been hindered because they can be challenging to store, resulting in lower sugar recovery and increased processing costs.

During the winter of 2004/05, about 17 per cent of the Ontario crop was lost due to rotted beets in storage, says John Zandstra, a horticulturist at the University of Guelph's Ridgetown Campus. Sugar beets are harvested in the fall and stored in outdoor piles so that processing can occur throughout the winter. To help improve the final quality of sugar beets, he and Ridgetown professor Laura Van Eerd are studying factors such as growing conditions, crop maintenance, harvesting procedures and storing conditions and varieties.

"Improving the quality of sugar beet storage will allow the industry to be more profitable and will help diversify the agricultural economy," says Zandstra.

The study is being carried out at grower sites across Ontario and at the Michigan Sugar Company's piling station in Dover Centre, Ont. The research team is tracking factors from seed to processing that affect sugar beet quality.

Things they're looking at include the effect that varying nitrogen rates applied in the field have on sugar beet storage quality, and differences in storage characteristics among beet varieties.

Zandstra is also studying harvesting and piling techniques to assess the incidence of scrapes and bruises, which make sugar beets susceptible to rot and sugar loss when stored. He's using an impact recording device, a small round sphere similar in shape, size and weight to the average sugar beet. The device passes through harvesters and piling equipment like a sugar beet would. Impact data are collected, stored and later uploaded to a computer for analysis.

This technique allows Zandstra to identify areas in the harvesting and piling machinery where the beet will experience bruising and damage. He'll use this knowledge to make recommendations to help growers improve their practices.

The researchers will also monitor beet quality at the storage pile, where beets from multiple growers are dumped together into bulk piles up to six metres tall, 50 to 60 metres wide and 300 metres long. The beets are stored in these piles until they're exported to Michigan for processing. Samples will be taken from these piles throughout the storage period to monitor how sugar quality, weight and rot vary.

Zandstra says the researchers hope their findings will ultimately give growers more techniques to improve the quality of their product, reduce losses and boost their returns.

Funding for this research came from several sources, including contributions by Canada and the Province of Ontario under the Canada-Ontario Research and Development (CORD) Program, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-food Program (with joint funding coming from the Agricultural Adaptation Council in Ontario and the Agriculture and Food Program Council of Alberta), the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food Rural Affairs, and the Ontario Sugar Beet Growers Association. In-kind contributions were made by the Michigan Sugar Company, Agri-Food Laboratories and A+L Laboratories Inc.

Bioeconomy Project Outcomes (renewable energy and bioproducts)

Putting livestock waste to work - biogas

Utilizing farm animal manure to produce biogas could enhance the sustainability of farming, protect the environment and create new economic opportunities in rural areas, says a University of Guelph research engineer.

Ron Fleming of the University's Ridgetown campus studied an anaerobic digestion process for manure. During this process, methane was produced and could be used to generate electricity and heat. The anaerobic digestion process also produced a nutrient-rich material that can be safely spread on fields.

"Biogas is a win-win situation for the farmer and society," said Fleming. "It provides a sustainable way to produce energy and creates a more environmentally friendly form of livestock manure."

In this system, manure from livestock farms is put into an air-tight tank. By providing a certain level of heat and an environment without oxygen, specific anaerobic bacteria are encouraged to break down the organic matter. After about three weeks, these bacteria leave a slurry solution containing all the original nutrients after converting various manure compounds into carbon dioxide and methane gas.

Methane can be used as a fuel. In most cases, it's burned to power a generator, which produces electricity and heat. The heat created by the generator can be captured and used to warm the digester, helping the digestion process. Some heat can be used for other useful purposes, such as heating buildings. The liquid digestate can be used as an environmentally friendly fertilizer: the digestion process kills most harmful bacteria and greatly reduces odours from the liquid, making it more acceptable to neighbours than untreated manure.

Fleming worked to optimize pig manure digestion, using an 8,000-litre, pilot-scale digester. He tested "recipes" of manure and other materials to determine the cost effectiveness of digestion with various mixtures. Ridgetown campus has a 2,000-litre demonstration unit that will be used to examine the feasibility of digesting organic by-products of the fresh vegetable industry, such as waste sweet potatoes.

As well, he conducted side-by-side trials between anaerobic digestion and traditional composting, to compare the energy inputs and outputs, volumes and nutrient content of various materials. Recent projects have looked at the feasibility of using either spent mushroom substrate or hatchery waste as inputs for both an anaerobic digester and a composter.

Fleming said adding off-farm materials that are high in carbon, such as food processing wastes, can boost methane yield, compared to manure alone. In the past, regulations have made it very difficult to move some of these materials to on-farm systems, but government agencies in Ontario have been working to streamline this process for certain materials. Mixing these waste products with livestock manure in an anaerobic digester has the potential to make the best use of their energy and nutrient potential.

There are only a handful of anaerobic digesters on Ontario farms, and a fairly small number in all of Canada. In comparison, Fleming said there are more than 3,500 units on farms in Germany, where electricity prices are higher. The system represents a significant investment for Ontario farmers, but interest is at a high level, and recent "green energy" incentives in Ontario should help to encourage the growth of this industry in Ontario.

This research was funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ontario Pork, the Ontario Hatchery Association and the Canadian Mushroom Growers' Association. Funding was also provided in part through contributions by Canada and the Province of Ontario under the Canada-Ontario Research and Development Program (CORD) administered in Ontario by the Agricultural Adaptation Council, and the Alternative Renewable Fuels program.

Living biofilter air-cleaning ecosystem for buildings

Maintaining indoor air quality at a high level is a challenge in today's industrialized society when North Americans spend more than eighty percent of their time indoors. With a wide range of climate conditions in Canada and energy conservation being a priority, having buildings sealed against the elements is an efficient way to maintain a comfortable indoor climate. Sealing buildings in some cases can result in accumulation of gasses from furniture, carpets, ceiling tiles and wall covers. The gasses, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) may also increase the risk of health problems if not removed from the air.

An Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) funded research project has developed a new method to improve the quality of indoor air. The novel method of indoor air biofiltration, uses living plants and beneficial microbes in a biofilm as a biofilter to degrade pollutants and produce oxygen while cleaning the air in an energy efficient way.

This research has potentially great benefits for anyone working or living in the buildings with the biofilter, especially those suffering from health problems such as asthma, fatigue, headaches, eye irritation, fever and infections. This technology has wide range of benefits including reduced energy consumption, improved air quality, and aesthetic appeal. This OMAFRA-funded Plant Agriculture research at the University of Guelph could be used as a means of mitigating the sick building syndrome and may some day be used in space exploration.

The new four-story-high living wall air filter installed at the Humber College in Toronto is one example of spin-off benefits from this research. Another example of benefits from the original research project is the launch of a Guelph company, Air Quality Solutions Ltd. Air Quality Solution Ltd. offers plant based biofilters for residential and industrial use.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs funded research at the University of Guelph led to additional funding from CRESTech (Centre for Research in Earth and Space Technology, now known as Earth and Environmental Technologies), an Ontario Centre of Excellence (OCE) and the awarding of a fellowship from the OCE to assist in the commercialization of the technology. This original research project was also funded by other collaborative partners such as the Canada Life Assurance Co. and Adason Properties Ltd., Air Quality Solutions, NORCAT and both the European and Canadian Space Agencies.

Turning vehicles green with bioplastics

Every car on the road contains more than 200 kilograms of plastic. But it's typically made with raw materials and energy from petroleum or natural gas, and it's not biodegradable. This has enormous environmental implications. Now, a new initiative involving four top universities could see car parts take on a bio-based composition, by integrating plant materials into plastic.

Prof. Larry Erickson, a plant geneticist at the University of Guelph, said this "biocar" initiative is the first time Ontario's top two sectors - automotive and agriculture - have worked together on a grand scale. He said the pairing could usher in a new era of building materials that will lessen dependence on petroleum-based plastics.

"No car in Ontario is yet made from plastic composites that include plant material," said Erickson, "but there's great potential to use local crops in Ontario-made cars."

He, along with many plant breeders, processing and chemical engineers, and design analysts, studied how to produce car parts made from plastic composites - that is, plastic made using two or more plant materials. Currently, researchers have successfully used plastic composites to make residential siding and lumber for fences, decks and small bridges.

The biocar initiative was a joint research program involving the University of Guelph, the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo and the University of Windsor. The starting steps for this research are being made at Guelph, the agri-partner in the group.

Erickson stated that the initiative will be a huge opportunity for the Ontario agricultural industry to gain profile and make a bigger mark on the economy. Local farmers will have more outlets for their commodities, enhancing crop value.

"This bioproduct research will ensure a stable supply of renewable, more reliable plastics made from local crop sources that will be very valuable compared to the use of plastics from petroleum, which must be imported and can make the economy vulnerable during shortages," said Erickson.

Other University of Guelph researchers involved in this project were Profs. Istvan Rajcan and Peter Pauls of the Department of Plant Agriculture, Prof. Gary Ablett of the Ridgetown Campus, Prof. Ian Tetlow of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Prof. Michael Eames of the College of Biological Sciences.

The research is funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food Rural Affairs and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.

Human Health Project Outcomes (disease prevention and nutrition)

Potential preventive tool for hospital acquired infection

Hospital acquired infections (HAI) are a significant cause of more than 2 million cases per year, with some 88,000 deaths around the world. A HAI occurs usually 3 days after a patient is admitted to a hospital or other health-care facility. HAI can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. The infection acquired in a hospital setting is commonly caused by specific bacterial organisms, such as staphylococci, and P. aeruginosa. Usually these infections occur when the bacteria present in hospital develop in the patient's skin, respiratory tract, and genitourinary tract, leading to blood stream infections.

Despite strict cleaning procedure, skin and nasal disease causing organisms (pathogens) seems to gain access to the blood stream more easily than others. This results in lengthened hospital stays. Current approaches to eliminate risks of infections are limiting and infections in the blood stream must be treated with aggressive antibiotic before severe illness develops.

An Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs-funded research with Anthony M. Jevnikar, a Chief Scientific Officer at the Plantigen Inc. is developing a plant based system to produce antibodies for use in the prevention and treatment of human disease caused by skin born bacteria. The study will use the tobacco plant to produce high value antibodies for use in the prevention of HAI caused by specific bacteria. This study will then use that as a template system to prevent serious infections caused by skin pathogens by using a topical applied preventive strategy.

Topical application of antibodies is simple and would also limit wound infection and the spread of skin bacteria to the blood. This cost effective method of producing antibodies could be a major solution to preventing infections. This study has huge benefits to the economy by reducing health care cost, and opportunities for both business and agriculture by the production, development and market of these new products.

This Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs - funded project in partnership with Plantigen Inc. and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) will produce a potentially high-value product that could have a wide application within society.

In addition to the support from Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, this study also receives support from London Health Sciences Centre, AAFC, Lawson Health Research Institute.

Eggs to Fight Osteoporosis

A technique has been developed to extract a component from egg yolks that enhances the absorption of calcium in the digestive tract. This unique phosphopeptide is a protein that may be helpful in the prevention of osteoporosis in humans.

Osteoporosis is a disease that causes a reduction in bone mass, leading to weak bone structures and fractures in humans. Calcium is the building block of healthy strong bones. Protection against osteoporosis depends not only on the quantity of calcium intake, but also on its rate of absorption. For this reason, the egg protein may be particularly important for elderly persons, among whom osteoporosis is most common.

In addition to its health benefit, the research has the potential to generate new value added egg products. This research also makes use of the by-products of eggs, thus eliminates accumulation of wastes. Commercial firms in Ontario and the European Union have expressed interest in the technology. Dr. Yoshi Mine, a food scientist at the University of Guelph, developed the phosphopeptide and process with research funding provided by OMAFRA through the University of Guelph Food Program. This project is also funded by other collaborative partners as the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada/Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

New research puts functional soy component right in the breadbasket

Soy has rapidly risen to the top of the functional food chain, largely because of its high level of isoflavones, compounds that help reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancers. Despite this benefit, many people are put off by soy's distinctive taste, which keeps them from enjoying its health advantages.

Enter Prof. Alison Duncan of the University of Guelph's Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences. She has assembled a team of researchers to bring soy's health benefits beyond soy foods, by incorporating isoflavones into everyday staple foods. They're starting with isoflavone-enriched bread.

"We want to introduce newly developed foods that would provide consumers with more options to increase their intake of soy isoflavones," says Duncan.

The project has four phases. First, she and her team will grow and harvest soybean plants with low, medium and high isoflavone levels. Next, they'll use the soybeans to produce breads with the three different levels. Third, they'll monitor human subjects as they consume the breads to evaluate how well the isoflavones are absorbed into the body. Finally, the team will conduct economic and consumer choice evaluations to gauge the public's interest in this kind of isoflavone-enhanced product and to see if it's economically viable.

Duncan says this study is unique because it involves researchers in plant agriculture, food product development, nutritional science, natural product chemistry and agricultural economics.

"One of the most exciting parts of the project is that it brings different disciplines together," she says. "We're all interested in soybeans in some way, but each from a different standpoint. In working together, we create an interesting approach to our research."

Duncan is collaborating with Prof. Istvan Rajcan, Department of Plant Agriculture; Prof. Massimo Marcone, Department of Food Science; Prof. John Cranfield, Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics; Rong Cao, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; and Al Mussell, George Morris Centre. Their work was funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

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For more information:
E-mail: research.omafra@ontario.ca
Author: Elin Gwyn, KTT Analyst/RIB
Creation Date: 14 January 2014
Last Reviewed: 18 March 2015