Dr. Kirstin Bett (PhD)
Pulse crop genomics and dry bean breeding
QUALITY INSIDE AND OUT: FROM WILD GENES TO THE FOOD ON YOUR PLATE
(by Ashleigh Mattern)
Professor Kirstin Bett is researching how to use wild lentils to improve genetic variability — without the baggage that wild pulses bring along with them.
Wild pulses tend to grow low to the ground, making them hard to harvest mechanically, and the seed pods explode at maturity so you can’t harvest the seed. The seeds are also on the small side, and they have dormancy issues so they don’t germinate like a cultivated seed would. On the upside, wild relatives tend to have good disease resistance.
“These plants have been growing out there, facing all the elements, without the benefits of any herbicide, fungicide and all of that good stuff that we protect our plants with, so they build up this resistance,” Bett said.
Sometimes the wild varieties have a resistance to certain pathogens that the cultivated varieties have lost through breeding. In cultivated lentil varieties, there’s no resistance to race 0 of the Anthracnose-causing pathogen, but there is resistance in some wild relatives.
Hailing from Ontario, Bett does lentil genomics work for the lentil breeding program at the Crop Development Centre. Understanding the genetics of wild pulses will help avoid the negative features of the crops while selecting for the positives.
From 2015-19, the lentil program had a Genome Canada grant to understand how varieties adapt to growing in nine locations around the world, and they currently have another grant to follow up on that study and look at quality traits. “What we’re doing is trying to develop … an understanding of the genetics, underlying key traits related to quality characteristics, both inside and outside the seed,” Bett said.
DRY BEANS: A LUCRATIVE CROP
She’s also the only dry bean breeder in Saskatchewan. Dry beans are a warm season legume, not like the rest of the pulses the Crop Development Centre pulse group works with. Dry beans hail from semi-tropical areas and Bett says it’s challenging to grow them on the fringes of agricultural land.
“They’re quite sensitive to our day length, they don’t like long days, and our season is super short,” she said. “Beans hate the cold so you have to plant them late, and they have to mature early so they don’t freeze in the fall.”
They also don’t like cold nights, and tend to stop growing overnight, so she breeds for lines that are not as affected by cool nights. She said one year the program grew its varieties in Mexico, and when it got close to zero, everyone was marveling at the Canadian beans that weren’t affected by the cold temperature.
While it’s not a huge crop, it is lucrative, and with plans to expand irrigation in Saskatchewan, there may be more opportunities to grow dry beans in the province.
CREATING GOOD QUALITY FOOD
One success of her program was to introduce slow darkening pinto beans into the market. As pinto beans age, they get darker and they look less attractive. Darker pinto beans get downgraded.
“Back then, the number one pinto in western Canada was already darkening coming out of the field, and we discovered a line that retained it’s bright background for much longer, so we dubbed it slow darkening,” Bett said.
She said she spent “a few obsessive years” working out the genetics and finally figured out what the gene was. Slow darkening pintos are now in demand across North America. “Most of us like seeing our varieties hitting the grocery stores,” Bett said. “You know you had a hand in it and you’re going to eat it.”
She considers herself a foodie and does a lot of cooking. Especially when it comes to the lentil side of her work, she’s excited about all the possibilities with that food. “Everybody knows split red lentils and green lentils, but there are so many other types out there and so many things you can do with them,” she said.
“People have re-discovered cooking especially with plantbased proteins. It’s such a hot topic these days, it’s not going to go away, and it’s so great to participate on the leading edge of it so as to provide humans with the ability to eat good quality food.”