U of S-Symbiota project awarded Genome Canada funding to develop natural plant microbiome products for improving food crops

University of Saskatchewan microbiologists Vladimir Vujanovic and Jim Germida have been awarded $1.9 million through Genome Canada's Genomic Applications Partnership Program. They will work with Cambridge, Mass. based plant microbiome company, Symbiota™, on a $16-million research project aimed at improving yield and stress resistance in food crops.

By Jennifer Thoma

The U of S and Symbiota researchers will use cutting edge tools to evaluate and field test crop-microbe combinations that hold promise for developing breakthrough agricultural products.

"Building on an exciting discovery from U of S plant, microbial, and soil sciences, this international research project promises new tools for farmers to help feed a growing world population," said U of S Vice-President Research Karen Chad. "We thank Genome Canada, Genome Prairie and Symbiota for supporting this critically important research partnership."

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization forecasts world food production must increase by 70 per cent to feed another two billion people by 2050. This challenge must be met despite diminishing freshwater resources, rising energy prices and the need for crops to adapt to the pressures of a global climate that is expected to be drier, hotter and more extreme.

Vujanovic and Germida have discovered a new group of microbes within plant cell tissues that have novel mechanisms of plant interaction, enabling substantially improved seed germination, yield, and drought- and heat-stress resilience in more than 20 varieties of wheat, barley, pulses and canola.

"By using a new group of microorganisms found within healthy plants, we are naturally improving the plant's response to stresses and increasing yields under severe climatic conditions," said Vujanovic, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources and Agri-Food Innovation Chair, which is supported by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture.

"This approach can help farmers and the environment by speeding up the process of variety improvement, developing crops which are healthier and produce higher yields," said Germida, a U of S soil science professor well known for his studies on the biodiversity and community dynamics of microorganisms in agro-ecosystems. "We are grateful to the Genome Canada-Genome Prairie and Symbiota teams who share a vision in pushing forward leading food security research."

"Symbiota is excited to partner with the U of S on this important project and we thank Genome Canada for their support," said Geoffrey von Maltzahn, co-founder and chief technology officer of Symbiota. "We look forward to applying our groundbreaking insights into the plant microbiome to offer a step change in crop performance and make a sustainable positive impact on farm operations."

"There are remarkable commercial opportunities to be gained through the application of microbial and plant sciences, and Canada's agriculture industry is leading the way. This project is a remarkable example of how provincial support for basic research has resulted in a U of S-developed technology that has real world benefits, sustainable economic returns for local farmers and the potential to positively impact agriculture on a global scale. Genome Prairie is very excited to partner with the U of S and innovative companies like Symbiota," said Genome Prairie's Chief Scientific Officer Chris Barker.

Wheat, corn, soybean, canola, barley, and pulses stand to benefit from the project — crops that account for more than $15 billion in annual production in Canada alone. They are also critical sources of calories, protein and essential nutrients for much of the world's more than seven billion people.

The U of S-Symbiota project is one of 12 across the country announced under Genome Canada's Genomic Applications Partnership Program, which backs research to address real world challenges and opportunities as identified by industry, government, not-for-profits and other end users of genomics research.


Jennifer Thoma

Media Relations Specialist

University of Saskatchewan



Quyen Van

Communications Officer

Genome Prairie