By JOHN O'CONNELL
AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho -- There isn't much canola grown in Eastern Idaho, but the golden-flowering stalks in Kamren Koompin's 40-acre field are unique for yet another reason.
They were developed to be herbicide resistant -- not through genetic modification but rather using a new technology expected to be more palatable with the public.
The canola variety can withstand the generic version of the herbicide Harmony Extra. It's now the subject of trials throughout much of the U.S. and Canada, with the sole Idaho trial taking place at Koompin Farms.
The San Diego-based plant trait development firm Cibus Global bred the product using a process known as site-directed mutagenesis. Cibus research agronomist Jameson Hall explained the method involves tricking a plant into changing particular alleles within a gene through a natural process the plant would undergo to repair itself. No foreign DNA is introduced.
Hall said it's his company's first product developed using the technology, which he believes enables his company to breed traits into crops faster than competitors, aside from those who use genetic modification.
"Essentially we're looking at this technology to see if we can find some healthier oils," Hall said, adding Cibus is also developing a new flax variety with a Canadian company.
The Idaho-based potato grower cooperative Naturally Enhanced United Seed has partnered with Cibus to use the same approach to develop potato seed with desirable traits. NEU Seed Executive Director Keith Esplin believes the canola trials provide reason for optimism about forthcoming potato varieties bred through mutagenesis.
"There are other companies with related technologies, but nothing quite like this," Esplin said. "We hope to go to trials in a couple of years."
The first spud product they plan to release is a non-GMO Roundup-resistant Russet Burbank.
The second variety they hope to develop would be resistant to the class of chemicals known as PPO inhibitors. Examples include Chateau by Valent and Reflex by DuPont. A PPO-resistant potato would allow growers to use the herbicides in higher doses and later in the season to get better control of weeds and to kill a wider variety of them, Esplin said.
A third variety would seek to reduce blackspot bruising in spuds.
"What really excites us is the blackspot bruise (variety)," Esplin said.
He said herbicide-resistant spuds will be developed first because the process is simpler.
"You can basically put on the herbicide, and if they grow they're tolerant, and if they don't they aren't," Esplin said.
Pamela Hutchinson, an associate professor of weed science with the University of Idaho's Aberdeen Research and Extension Center, plans to assist in variety trials of NEU Seed's non-GMO spuds.
Through conventional breeding methods, Hutchinson said, it could take 12 years to develop spuds with resistance to diseases such as late blight and PVY.
"With this technology they can develop a variety in maybe half that time," Hutchinson said.
Koompin anticipates the potato varieties will be well received by the industry.
"We would be interested probably. I imagine everybody would be," Koompin said.