Kifah GharzeddiVisiting scholar Kifah Gharzeddin is applying molecular biology to the development of heartier crop varieties.

Researcher developing crops better able to cope with changing climate

A visiting scholar in integrative biology is using molecular biology to boost crop production and reduce food insecurity in the face of climate change.

Using selective breeding, crop breeder Kifah Gharzeddin takes cultivars — plant varieties chosen for their specific traits — and breeds heartier varieties.

“I genetically improve crop traits that are important for farmers and processors, such as yield, resistance to diseases, and resistance to environmental stressors, mainly to heat and drought,” says Dr. Gharzeddin.

At a time of global climate change, he says, it is a top priority to secure food production, by developing crops resistant to biotic and abiotic stressors.

“Increasing global temperature is imposing significant depletion of crop production, not only through the direct effect of the heat itself on the plant systems, but also by stimulating the activities of biotic stresses such as fungi and pests,” Gharzeddin says.

“I aim to develop new crop varieties with distinguished traits of Windsor-Essex crops to support local farming food producers, processors, and consumers. Under the adversity of climate perpetuations, breeding for high and robust yield and increased crop nutritional properties is essential to handle the implications of challenging climate on food crops.”

Developing a new crop variety involves combining parent plants holding favourable traits and applying selection on the progeny populations over several generations to select those with the best performance for the trait of interest, Gharzeddin says.

“To improve the efficacy of selection, I apply molecular techniques to help identify, characterize, and utilize the genetic variations found in the progeny populations. Due to the rapid growth of the world’s population and food insecurity concerns, further inputs to crop breeding are needed,” he says.

“That is how a crop breeder such as myself contributes to the global efforts of tackling these challenges.”

Bringing his plant breeding expertise to campus means he is developing crops specifically for local conditions.

“Windsor-Essex County is one of the top agricultural regions in the world, and the University of Windsor developed an advanced and comprehensive agriculture program by collaborating with government and industry present in Windsor-Essex County. This enables excellent crop breeding research and variety development in Windsor,” says Gharzeddin.

One of those early collaborations is using the plant microbiome, which takes advantage of beneficial communities of plant microbes that live on and inside plants, to enhance the breeding outcome and increase crop fitness. Gharzeddin says this method has great potential to strengthen plant resistance against pathogens.

Recently inducted into the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Gharzeddin says being part of the group promotes interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems.

“I see the only way the scientific community can help tackle the biggest problems in Canada and the world is to invest time and energy on developing interdisciplinary programs and practices,” he says.