Discoveries transforming lives and livelihoods
in 2017, Canadian exports of canola surpassed those of wheat. And yet, in the 1990s, what is now Canada’s most valuable crop was almost destroyed.
Blackleg, a destructive fungus that kills cereal crops, had spread quickly, threatening Canada’s canola industry. Yield losses in some Western Canadian fields were approaching 50 per cent before Gary Stringam, a University of Alberta (U of A) plant scientist, found a gene in an Australian canola strain that was resistant to blackleg and used it to create a new canola variety called Quantum.
In its first year of production, four Alberta farmers more than tripled their yields with the new variety. A year later, Quantum was being grown on nearly 30 per cent of Western Canada’s canola acres. Today, canola contributes more than $26-billion to Canada’s economy, supporting more than 250,000 jobs. Canada’s canola accounts for nearly 70 per cent of global canola imports.
“Research at Canadian universities is where this kind of work happens,” says Matthias Ruth, U of A vice-president of research. “And the University of Alberta is no exception.
“University research is a catalyst for innovation and crucial not just to economic diversification and competitiveness, but also to the lives, health and livelihoods of Canadians, and the country as a whole,” says Dr. Ruth.
In fact, according to U15, a collective of Canada’s research intensive universities that includes the U of A, $8.5-billion worth of research – accounting for 83 per cent of all contracted private-sector research in Canada – is conducted annually by these universities.
The U of A’s history of driving innovation dates back to the early 1920s and the university’s infancy, when biochemistry professor James Collip played a pivotal role in the treatment of diabetes by purifying insulin for human use. Fast-forward 80 years, when U of A researchers introduced the Edmonton Protocol, a procedure that saw certain patients with type 1 diabetes become insulin-independent, at least in the short term, at an unprecedented success rate of 100 per cent. While it’s not a cure, the protocol is used in Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy and Switzerland. The United States is expected to follow.
The U of A’s discoveries and innovations extend far beyond agriculture and diabetes. Researchers at the university also laid the foundation for lamivudine, the world’s first hepatitis B antiviral, now licensed in over 200 countries, which has also proven useful in combating HIV/AIDS. The university also launched Canada’s first computer science department. Fifty years later, the U of A is a critical mass of leading artificial intelligence experts, and one of Canada’s three national AI hubs. It attracted partners such as Google, Amazon, IBM and the Royal Bank of Canada, and in 2017, DeepMind choose Edmonton as its first international AI research lab, thanks to the expertise at the university.
Whether it’s Quantum canola, the Edmonton Protocol or lamivudine, Dr. Ruth says lives and livelihoods depend on transferring technologies out of the lab. That requires a healthy innovation ecosystem which, to thrive, needs consistently strong support for fundamental research.
“Nobody knows whether a great product for which there is a market down the road will ultimately result from research,” explains Dr. Ruth. “Just look at lasers, which were called a solution waiting for a problem when they were created in the 1950s. But if fundamental research is not well supported in a healthy and sustainable way, innovation will suffer and decline.”
Understanding the vital impact research can have, the U of A partnered with the City of Edmonton in 2006 to launch a business accelerator, TEC Edmonton. Since then, the university’s research has spawned hundreds of patents and licences, and has 130 spinoffs still operational.
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