Dr. Pierre Hucl (PhD)
Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program (SRP) Chair in CWRS Wheat, Specialty Wheats, and Canaryseed Breeding and Genetics
UNEXPECTED RESULTS: THE RISE IN POPULARITY OF PURPLE WHEAT AND CANARY SEED
(by Ashleigh Mattern)
It’s not a colour you expect wheat to be, but Dr. Pierre Hucl’s purple wheat has started to make a name for itself worldwide. “I didn’t anticipate where it was going to go,” said Hucl. “I thought, let’s see if we can use this as a topping on multi-grain bread, but it’s gone beyond that.”
Now, the purple-coloured wheat has been used to make vodka and is a popular instant noodle colour in some parts of the world where purple is considered a lucky colour.
The idea for purple wheat was inspired when Hucl was looking for something to differentiate feed wheat while he was working at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. There used to be seven market classes of wheat for different end users, each with its own seed colour, shape and size.
“We were looking for different kernel shapes and colours as a differentiator, and I fell on purple wheat,” Hucl said.
Anthocyanins are the pigments that gives plants red and purple colouring, and it can be found in berries, tomatoes and grapes. Hucl found he could double, triple or quadruple the amount of anthocyanin in the wheat bran through traditional plant breeding.
Hucl is still working on improving purple wheat today — namely the milling quality — because he was primarily focused on boosting pigment levels initially.
A GLOBAL EDUCATION
Hucl spent his summers in the French countryside with his grandparents, engendering an early interest in the natural world. His grandfather was the local postman in the French commune where they lived, and Pierre would join him in his pickup truck as he made his rounds.
“We’d stop in all the little villages, hamlets and farms and visit so I kind of got exposed to local agriculture and horticulture and asked a lot of questions,” he said.
The Montreal-born Hucl grew up in Europe and the Caribbean. He spent his elementary years in Switzerland, high school in Austria, and came back to Canada to finish high school and go to university. He did his undergraduate degree and Masters at the University of Guelph, then worked for a couple of years as a research associate before coming to Saskatoon to do his PhD.
THE FIRST HAIRLESS CANARY SEED
Today, Hucl specializes in genetics and breeding of bread wheat for the short-season areas of Western Canada and the evaluation of alternative wheats and annual canarygrass. One of his successes includes developing the first hairless canary seed.
Saskatchewan is a global leader in producing and exporting canary seed. The seed is primarily used as bird feed but has a growing market of people interested in it for its health benefits.
The older varieties of the crop have microscopic hairs on the hulls that enclose the seed; when harvesting, those hairs break off and can be irritating for the farmers.
In the 1980s, production was increasing but farmers were complaining about the itchiness of the crop. “Our breeding objective was to see if we could eliminate the hairs,” Hucl said.
Once that goal was accomplished, they realized these seeds could be used for human consumption and started to look at breeding a seed colour that would be more aesthetically pleasing to consumers.
Canary seed is now becoming seen as a health food, and is being purchased more widely for human consumption.
A LONG BATTLE WITH DISEASE AND PESTS
His current work also has a lot of emphasis on disease, he said, particularly fusarium head blight, which attacks cereal grain and forms mycotoxins.
Hucl says the disease has been a “bugbear” in wet years in western Canada now for more than 30 years because it’s not consistent, showing up some years and not others and causing challenges with repeatability in their studies.
Some of the problems breeders are working on today stem back to the early 1900s, he said. “Whatever pests you're dealing with, if you develop a resistant variety, the pests are going to find a way to overcome that resistance. ...
“They should come back and interview whoever might replace me 20 years from now — they’ll be talking about the same things and the only things that will change are ... the new breeding and research tools of the day.”