Biologist hopes research will help build a better bean

Windsor, ON, April 06, 2011

Bill Crosby would like to see the day when common navy beans, besides being served up as a protein- and fiber-rich side-dish, are used to make everything from steering wheels to prosthetics.

“They have a wonderful substrate for developing materials such as plastics as well as biodegradable products,” said Dr. Crosby, a University of Windsor biology professor and partner in a three-university project aimed at developing a draft genome sequence for dry beans.

Much in the same way the Human Genome Project identified the three billion chemical base pairs in the 25,000 genes found in the human body, the bean project—funded by Genome Canada—will identify the estimated 540 million base units of DNA found in the bean.

“It’s like the genetic dictionary of an organism,” Crosby said.

One of the main goals of the project is to find ways of making beans more resistant to disease. About 18 million tons of dry beans are harvested in Canada and around the world. In Ontario, the industry generates more than $100 million annually, but Crosby said bacterial pathogens such as common bean blight can eliminate as much as 10 to 40 percent of the crop.

“The economic value of that loss is in the tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “The problem is particularly acute in this area because of the warm, moist climate here.”

Reducing that loss, he said, will create higher yields so more beans can be used for developing value-added bio-products, without cutting into the portion of the crop used for human consumption.

The project, which includes partners at the University of Guelph, the University of Western Ontario and Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada’s research stations in Harrow and London, has received $3.7 million from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, as well as industry and other funding support totaling $11 million.

Crosby’s role in the project will be primarily a computational one. His group will gather all the genetic data collected by the other researchers, organize it at the university’s high performance computing facilities, and analyze it for quality and validity.

“Our job is to ensure that we get value for the data on behalf of all the centres participating in the project,” he said. “The data sets are so vast that without computational analysis to analyze them we’re not able to get an accurate understanding of that data.”

The project is a substantial one for the university, Crosby said, and positive results could provide a boon for Essex area farmers looking to maximize the productivity of their operations.

“This is one of the first large-scale agricultural bio-renewable projects that has come to the University of Windsor,” he said. “It’s significant because we’re among the most agriculturally productive areas in the country. There’s great potential to expand the role of the university in developing this key component of the regional economy of Southwestern Ontario.”

Biology professor Bill Crosby is part of a team hoping to map the genome of beans.
 

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Stephen Fields
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