Plant Sciences student developing cold-resistant bean
By Joel Deshaye
Six years ago, in 1995, Parthiba Balasubramanian arrived in Saskatchewan from his home in southern India and was met by one of the coldest winters in recent memory. It was an appropriate transition for a student in Plant Sciences who is now developing a variety of bean that will be able to survive in cold climates.
Parthiba, whose coldest winters in India were a balmy 20oC, was shocked by the 30oC temperatures of the bitter 1995-96 winter here. But he has proved himself a hardy survivor and is spending his winter months indoors, conducting his PhD research at the high-tech Phytotron facility on campus.
The Phytotron harbors many artificial ecosystems, where light, temperature, and humidity are controlled by researchers working year-round. It is the worlds largest indoor growth facility, sporting 167 independent and environmentally-controlled growth chambers.
Working with his supervisors, Dr. Bert Vandenberg and Dr. Pierre Hucl, Parthiba hopes to develop bean plants that will germinate in low temperatures and resist frost. By cross-pollinating high quality, commercial-variety beans with cold-resistant beans, they hope to produce a high-yielding and high quality bean that can be grown successfully in Saskatchewan and other northern climates. Saskatchewan is already known for producing high-quality foods, but there is room for improvement.
Parthiba compares our warmer seasons to those in northern Europe, where it is common to have a cold spring and a frosty autumn. "We hypothesize that the beans from those areas would have the ability to germinate at low temperatures. Also, the wild relatives that have been collected from Central and South America might be able to germinate at low temperatures (less than 10oC) as well."
Most North American beans cannot germinate at temperatures below 15oC, although seeding season in Saskatchewan usually begins in late May, when soil temperatures are often below 10oC. In autumn, a frost of 2oC is cold enough to kill most bean varieties in Saskatchewan.
The bean harvest usually occurs in mid-September, when frost is a constant danger.
Parthiba and his colleagues received several hundred bean varieties from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Columbia and the United States Department of Agriculture for their research. After preliminary screening, a subset of them was planted in Saskatchewan. They were encouraged by good results: one kind of bean survived last years late frost. If this success can be replicated, they will have a bean that "will survive frost like the pea, chickpea, and lentil, which are the other frost-resistant legume crops grown on the Prairies," he says. "Right now I have already started crossing this plant with a cultivated type."
The first eight months of Parthibas thesis work was frustrating and had to be discarded. "It was more a trial-and-error experiment," he says.
Research is now going well and he hopes to follow his doctoral research with work in a developing country.
"In developing countries legumes are the main protein source," says Parthiba, who is looking for a warmer climate. Nigeria, Syria, India, Mexico, Colombia and Peru are some of the locations he is considering.
Such tropical places will not need his cold-resistant beans, but he says he will go there because he is needed.
"I feel my service should be for the people of developing countries," Balasubramanian says.
Besides, he adds, "I will never get used to the Saskatchewan winter."
Joel Deshaye writes profiles of U of S graduate students as part of a fellowship with the College of Graduate Studies and Research.