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Camelina: Potential on the Shelf

The Value of Genebanks

It is important to note the international collaboration done by genebanks, as much of the existing genetic resources for camelina were collected and preserved by the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in Russia many years ago. If not for genebanks, this ancient and valuable genetic resource would not be easily available today to use for modern-day needs.

"It would be extremely difficult, dangerous and costly to collect some of this material today because much of it was collected in regions of eastern Europe and western Asia that are now politically volatile," Gugel says. "And we can never forget that it was the dedication and passion of the staff at the Vavilov Institute that protected camelina and other genetic resources during the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War II."

Many people in the agriculture industry have heard of Camelina sativa or camelina, an ancient European oilseed crop that holds big potential for Canadian agriculture.

What kind of potential? Camelina requires less water than canola, matures early and can grow in cool climates. It is also showing to be a great feedstock for bioproducts such as bioplastics in packaging, and can serve as a food supplement or a food product for humans, or a nutritious, protein-rich feed for cattle, fish, poultry, and swine.

Much of Canada’s camelina knowledge comes from the hard work of many researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). In 2013, a public-private research team led by AAFC’s Dr. Isobel Parkin sequenced the camelina genome, but, well before that achievement, AAFC researchers Mr. Richard Gugel and Dr. Kevin Falk dusted this seed off and brought it to life.

Right Place, Right Time

Camelina has been cultivated for thousands of years in Europe and Asia, and it was brought to Canada in 1863. It has been considered as a commercial crop several times.  But it wasn’t until 1999 that it planted itself firmly in the minds of AAFC researchers at the Saskatoon Research Centre. The Centre is home to Plant Gene Resources of Canada (PGRC) and a team of oilseed breeders well aware of the success of camelina’s sister crop, canola.

As Canada’s national genebank, PGRC maintains a storehouse of diverse seeds and other genetic material. Scientists there routinely regenerate stored seeds to make sure they are still viable, and also collect characterization data on the seeds and growing plants to add value to the collection. In 1999, Richard Gugel, a curator at PGRC, was growing some camelina in field trials and noted it’s uniformity, early maturity, lack of disease and pest problems, and relatively good overall agronomic performance. The results of oil, protein and fatty acid analyses of the harvested seeds were also promising.

At the same time, a groundswell of enthusiasm for industrial feedstocks (both oil and meal) was emerging. Industry needed a crop that would not cross with other oilseed crops or easily mix with and contaminate other oilseed markets. The time was right to bring camelina off the shelf and into the research lab.

Developing New Lines

Dr. Kevin Falk (now retired), who had bred several varieties of Polish canola and Ethiopian mustard (carinata), agreed to work on camelina with Gugel, as a side project. After some field trials to evaluate agronomics and seed quality, they had the basis for a breeding program.

Promising early results gave Falk the industry support needed to continue research on camelina. The first variety they released was called Midas, due to the oil’s bright yellow-gold colour.

Without Gugel’s and Falk’s eyes and hands, those camelina seeds might still be sitting on genebank shelves. But now, camelina is ready to germinate, grow and make its contribution to industry, thanks to these AAFC inventors.

And who knows? There probably are other crops preserved in genebanks, just waiting to be pulled off the shelf and "discovered." Not bad for something that started off as a side project!

Ongoing Camelina Research

Today, AAFC scientists continue developing camelina as a crop for the Canadian agricultural landscape.

Dr. Christina Eynck, in Saskatoon, is testing potential new cultivars with increased seed size. Scientists Drs. Dwayne Hegedus and Isobel Parkin collaborated on a project with researchers from Dalhousie and Memorial universities on a project that addressed the use of camelina meal protein and oil in farmed fish diets. The research showed that camelina oil is sufficiently nutritious to replace all the fish oil in fish feeds, as well as some of ground fish meal. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) approved 100% replacement of fish oil with camelina oil in fish diets. Further research is ongoing.

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Midas, developed at AAFC, in early flowering stage.
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Camelina nursery being grown at AAFC’s Saskatoon Research Farm in late July of 2013.
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