HELPING CROPS SURVIVE DROUGHT— AND FARMERS TO THRIVE
JULIAN NORTHEY, alumnus, Department of Cell & Systems Biology
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When prolonged drought strikes an area, crop yield, livelihoods—and the economy—can be destroyed. And drought may well intensify around the world as climate change causes huge variations in precipitation and temperature.
While he was a U of T graduate student, Julian Northey began focussing on abscisic acid, a phytohormone involved in a plant’s response to drought. He discovered a genetic pathway that hyper-sensitizes the plant to that hormone, making the plant more drought resistant.
Northey started a company, Frontier Agri-Science Inc., and worked with U of T’s Innovations and Partnerships Office to license his technology to develop and mature the seed technology. Frontier recently signed its second licencing agreement with a multinational agricultural company, which will test the technology’s usefulness in corn and wheat.
Northey is confident the seed technology will enable crops to grow in areas where droughts strike often. He also sees a second area of impact, where control of the crops is kept in the farmers’ hands. Northey prefers an open access model, which involves giving seed directly to farmers and allowing them to save and replant it. Remuneration for the technology could then be based on a farmer’s yield, eliminating the need for upfront costs. “It’s a built-in crop insurance—if you produce little, you pay little.”
Frontier is now working to extend the genetic research further into various crop
models. Northey and his team will use two approaches. One is based on direct genetic modification, where scientists tweak the genetics of an organism. The other method is breeding or inducing mutations within the genome and then looking for plants that have the desired genetic characteristics.
“In addition to enabling crops to grow in areas ravaged by drought, we feel our open access business model is more sustainable and advantageous to the farmer. Rather than maximizing profit to a corporation, it is maximizing value to the farmer.”