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Discoveries Research news and information from the

Fall 2013 • Vol. 6, No.2


ALES’ programs among world’s elite

Minister of Western Economic Development Michelle Rempel, ALES researcher David Bressler, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Verlyn Olson and MP Cathy McLeod at the launch of Forge Hydrocarbons, a spinoff company commercializing Bressler’s patented lipid-to-hydrocarbon technology.

ALES researchers honoured for patents Three ALES researchers were honoured for having been awarded a patent in 2012 at a recent TEC Edmonton event. Nat Kav was awarded a patent for a novel approach to fighting sclerotinia stem rot, a common fungal pathogen that attacks the stem, eventually breaking it and causing the plant, in this case canola, to die. Randall Weselake developed a process to clone a gene responsible for influencing seed oil content in flax and using it to boost seed oil content in camelina, an oil seed crop that grows well on marginal land but could benefit from increased oil content. Steven Moore was granted a patent for a genetic test that predicts the efficiency of nutrient utilization in cattle. These three patents add to the nine U.S. patents granted to ALES researchers between 2007 and 2011. During that time, 64 reports of inventions were filed and 10 license agreements were negotiated, which generated

$1.46 million in royalties and other revenues.

Spinoff company could be game changer in renewable fuels On the same day, a spinoff company using technology developed by ALES researcher David Bressler was launched. Forge Hydrocarbons is commercializing a pyrolysis technology, which was awarded a patent in 2007, that converts lipids and fats into drop-in fuels. Unlike traditional renewable fuels, drop-in fuels are chemically similar to and interchangeable with petroleum-based fuels, which means they can be used in their pure form as, for example, gasoline or natural gas or jet fuel. The process also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90 per cent when compared with the production of traditional petroleum-based hydrocarbons.

The Faculty of ALES’ agricultural and environmental programs rank among the world’s best, according to the latest rankings from National Taiwan University. Overall, the University of Alberta was ranked 40th in the world in agriculture, one of six fields in which the world’s top 500 universities were evaluated and ranked. The field of agriculture was sub-divided in three subjects, environment/ecology, agricultural sciences, and plant and animal science. The U of A placed 35th overall in environment/ecology, 39th in agricultural sciences and 65th in plant and animal sciences. “Our faculty conducts research that provides solutions to some of the major challenges our world is facing today, including food and nutritional security and environmental sustainability,” said John Kennelly, dean of the Faculty of ALES. “I’m convinced the standard of excellence our outstanding faculty members consistently demonstrate will carry on for a long time as we have had the good fortune to be in a position to attract excellent young professors across many disciplines over the last 10 years.”

RESE ARCH HIGHLIGHTS Janet Fast’s research reveals the significant and wide-ranging contributions of seniors.

Changing how society thinks about seniors Canadian seniors make huge contributions to the economy, their own families and communities, and to society, according to ALES research.

Women hold the key to help India take the next step in its economic development

“Seniors contribute a great deal as caregivers, paid workers and volunteers,” says researcher Janet Fast of the Department of Human Ecology. “It would surprise a lot of people.” Through her work with the Research on

Aging, Policies and Practices program, Fast uncovered that older adults: • do an average of 233 hours of volunteer work and donate an average of $2,000 annually to charity. • provide unpaid caregiving valued at $3.8 billion per year. • spend four million hours providing unpaid child care each week. As well, 75,000 grandchildren live with their grandparents. • are less likely to spend their last days in a hospital, and the oldest (aged 85 and up) are the least likely of all age groups to spend their last days of life in a hospital. Fast also found that 500,000 older adults are employed and labour force participation for people aged 65 to 69 has doubled in the last decade. Fast is working on a project in a partnership with the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton to compile fact sheets that raise awareness of seniors’ contributions.

“India’s spectacular growth over the past several decades has been propelled primarily by its skill-intensive sectors. If India is to continue on this development path, it needs to continue fuelling those sectors with skilled labor.

“Since women constitute half of India’s potential human capital, their education and skill levels are going to be the primary determinants of India’s ability to climb up the next rung of its development ladder,” he said.

New ALES research reveals that Indian women face much more uncertainty than men in landing a good paying job after graduation. Indeed, 42 per cent of college-educated Indian women will not get a job that matches their education in terms of pay, almost double the rate of 22 per cent for Indian men. “I was surprised when I saw that there is so much uncertainty, even for men,” said Sandeep Mohapatra, of the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology, who looked at the uncertainty of educational returns in India, one of the world’s fastest developing economies, with his colleague Marty Luckert. Mohapatra said these findings have implications for where government and NGOs provide incentives for higher education in India. Discoveries

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Sylvie Quideau is examining how ecosystems begin to form.

Rare glimpse of retreated glacier soil provides insights into how soils evolve ALES researchers studied the evolution of microbial communities in a glacier retreat area of Mount Robson, providing them with an ideal opportunity to study how quickly soil biological functions become established and

how ecosystems begin to form. ALES researcher Sylvie Quideau of the Department of Renewable Resources and graduate student Aria Hahn measured soil microbial community composition and functional diversity, and determined the influence of Engelmann spruce and yellow mountain avens on soil microbial community succession along the glacier chronosequence. They found that while soil microbial composition remained relatively stable, total biomass and fungal activity of the community responded to changes in the soil environment and increased as the soil aged. The insight helps researchers gain an understanding of how the multiple environmental factors that influence the evolution of soils interact, which can lead to advancements in the science and management of soils. “Soils and their inhabiting microbes differ greatly among glacier sites around the Earth. We believe that by understanding the natural phenomena in glaciers here at home, we can advance the management of Canadian ecosystems and also contribute valuable knowledge to the global community,” said Quideau.

Megan Strickfaden and Sihong Yu’s improved safety wear was well received by oil refinery workers.

Fashioning safer garments to suit the oil industry Collaborating with a handful of workers in oil refineries and in the field, ALES design researcher Megan Strickfaden and graduate student Sihong Yu tweaked and improved safety wear that protects against on-the-job hazards like steam and hot water burns, but is also more comfortable and functional. “They liked the garment so much they kept it on even when they didn’t need to wear Discoveries

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it, which is a nice testament to the design,” Strickfaden added. After wearing their custom-made duds on the job, the workers weighed in with a thumbs-up for a high-waisted trouser that replaced the traditional bib overall—but a thumbs-down for the bright orange colour, which made them conspicuous among their blue-clad co-workers. Their feedback will be used to make more changes to the test garments, with another round of field testing next summer as the research continues.

Researchers develop E. coli test for food processing facilities ALES researchers teamed up with U of A medical and computer science researchers to develop a testing device that can detect pathogenic E. coli while meat is still at food processing facilities. The test is more sensitive at picking up E. coli strains, faster at pinpointing results and less expensive than other tests that are currently used. ALES researchers Lynn McMullen and Michael Ganzle were part of the team that came up with the test, which makes millions of copies of the genes in the meat sample to determine whether E. coli is present. All users have to do is place a sample of meat in a machine and push a button. Results are obtained in less than an hour. The device builds on technology previously developed at the U of A that was designed to detect pathogens of various diseases. “The application of the technology to E. coli is only a starting point,” said McMullen. “There is potential to expand the technology to other food-borne pathogens. This multidisciplinary collaboration will be key to our current and future success to help make food at the dinner table safer.” A look inside the technology that allows E. coli to be detected in meat within an hour.


ALES researchers develop two new wheat varieties stringent bread-making quality tests over a number of years. The lines are in the process of being commercialized and will likely be made available to prairie farmers in two to three years.

Douglas-fir’s expanding habitat

Helping forests gain ground on climate change The forest industry and government foresters are using guidelines developed by ALES to get jump on climate change when planting trees. Maps developed by Laura Gray, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Renewable Resources, provide projections of climatically suitable habitat for tree species based on climate predictions for the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s. Currently, Alberta forestry companies and government agencies plant 80 million spruce, fir and pine seedlings to reforest more than 50,000 hectares of harvested land annually. “The information helps forest managers have more confidence in their decisions on what and where to plant. It allows them to

The two new wheat varieties developed by Dean Spaner, right, and his research group, mature early, are high yielding and offer good resistance to stripe rust.

2012 predicted in 2080

more accurately assess the climactic risk,” said Gray, co-author of the study with associate professor Andreas Hamann. The study addresses concerns that many populations of wide-ranging tree species, which are adapted to local growing conditions, may now or in the future actually lag behind their optimal growing environment because of changing temperature and precipitation conditions. The work is the first of its kind to tackle multiple potential climate scenarios for a large number of tree species across western North America. The researchers found that on average, populations already lag behind their best climate niche by 130 kilometres in latitude or 60 metres in elevation.

Original Illustration: Laura Gray

Prairie farmers will have new wheat options in the coming years as two varieties, successfully developed by the ALES’ wheat breeding program, were recently approved by the federally regulated Prairie Grain Development Committee. ALES researcher Dean Spaner and his research group developed BW947 and PT765, two high yielding Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat lines with good resistance to stripe rust, a serious, new disease affecting wheat crops in western Canada, especially Alberta. PT765 also has improved resistance to Fusarium Head Blight, a disease of consequence for animal and human health in the harvested grain. Both lines mature early, a significant characteristic for wheat growing in Alberta, especially north of Red Deer where the growing season is shorter. CWRS wheat is one of, if not the highest quality wheat in the world because of its high protein content, the size of its kernel and the ability of its dough to rise. It is often used to supplement lower quality grains of wheat in industrial purposes. To be approved for registration, CWRS wheat must pass extremely


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Discoveries fall13  

Research Highlights from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta Canada