Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC), Celebrating 20 years

Saskatchewan, Creating a Better Lentil

by sbccadmin on April 25, 2012

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Rui Song

Rui Song has ambitions

Rui Song has ambitions. Of course, you’d expect that of the first ever repeat winner of Saskatchewan’s Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge, the youngest ever competitor (14) at the national SBCC in 2010 and, having won 1st place two years ago, the first ever to try for the national championship again.

But competitions are only a step on her way to a much greater goal. She wants to improve nutrition around the world by building a better lentil.

Rui, 16, a Grade 11 student at Saskatoon’s Walter Murray Collegiate, worked eight hours a week at the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Plant Sciences since last July to improve understanding of the genetics of lentil, one of Saskatchewan’s largest crops and an essential, inexpensive source of protein worldwide, especially in West Asia and India.

An element in the makeup of the most widely-grown lentils — condensed tannins — makes them hardy, disease resistant and high yielding, and produces their seed coat colour. But the same tannins also rob the crop of some nutritional value.

Zero tannin lentils, on the other hand, have a clear seed coat, are more nutritious but don’t grow as well and are more susceptible to disease.

The challenge: find a way to combine the better characteristics of both lentil types. The answer may be found in a close genetic relative — the pea. Recent research found the Mendel A gene controls clear seed coats in peas. Rui demonstrated the same gene causes zero tannin lentils.

Riu’s mentors, Dr. Kirstin Bett, and Rob Stonehouse of the Plant Sciences Department at the University of Saskatchewan, say her work raises the hope of developing a new, more nutritious variety of lentil.

The immediate next step is to sequence the zero tannin lentil gene and analyze its effect on other genes.

“As an participant since 2008, my SBCC experience has definitely changed my life,” says Rui. “Not only did I receive a glimpse in the research process, I gained a new perspective on opportunities in the biotechnology sector. My experience has shaped my future career path and motivated me to change the world for the better through research.”

Dr. Bett is clearly impressed not only with Rui’s abilities in the lab, but with her vision. “Yes, the science is important, but what’s also important is her ability understand the bigger context,” she says.

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