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This researcher's work is ushering in the future of disease resistant pulses

Sabine Banniza became a plant pathologist because she wanted to know more. More about plants, more about microscopic organisms, and just more about Mother Nature in general.

“It’s really about curiosity for me — understanding things in our lives that are a mystery. As a plant pathologist, working with microorganisms is like stepping into a completely different world,” says the pulse pathologist at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC) in Saskatoon. 

“They’re so tiny, incredibly diverse, and there are so many of them. They change much quicker than larger organisms, and there’s a level of sophistication in these microorganisms that you wouldn’t expect unless you get to know them better.”

On the practical side, we all need to eat, and food security is crucial. Plant diseases significantly impact food production, and addressing these issues is a major driver for her, too.

That inspiration and drive is getting noticed. A project she’s spearheading at the CDC recently received more than $4.2 million from the Strategic Research Initiative (SRI) to discover and develop solutions for root rot in pea and lentil crops. It’s a project that could lead to Canada being a world leader in how to develop pulse varieties resistant to root rot. 

Over the past decade, root rot has become the top production challenge for Saskatchewan pea and lentil growers, according to the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG).

It thrives in wet, warm conditions and has expanded across the province, causing up to 60–84% yield declines in peas and lentils with losses in sales and exports of up to $1.5 billion a year, SPG says.

Currently, a few specific practices or products can manage Aphanomyces, one of the most harmful pathogens in the root rot complex affecting pulses. The primary strategy for controlling it involves long-term crop rotations, avoiding peas or lentils for six to eight years or more. That’s a long time to totally stop growing a specific crop, she notes.

“This approach has led growers to either extend their crop rotations or entirely shift away from cultivating peas and lentils. It’s a huge problem that we need to find a solution to,” Banniza says.

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