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Q&A with Wilf Keller, President and CEO of Ag-West Bio

By Jamie Richards, Director, Communications Branch

January 2020

Wilf Keller

President and CEO of Ag-West Bio Wilf Keller is retiring from the research hub in January 2020. Throughout his 40-year scientific career, Wilf has led many major research initiatives, including the application of genomics in canola improvement and participation in the development of Protein Industries Canada. We sat down with him to reflect on his long and successful career.

You've had a long research career and an impressive career leading science and biotechnology institutions. Looking back, what are you most proud of?

Now that I'm getting close to retirement, there are things that I felt were exciting.

One is the work we did nurturing the pollen grains in canola and related species. Canola has a lot of pollen. Every flower has six anthers and each anther has 10,000 pollen grains. So, you get billions of pollen grains floating around, and they are essential in the production of seeds. We were able to trigger the cultivation of the pollen grains into embryos or seedlings; you could go from a pollen grain directly to a plant. That's like going from a sperm cell to an animal. This allows plant breeders to move much more quickly and accurately in developing new varieties. Virtually every canola breeding program in the world uses that technology, and I take satisfaction in that.

The second area that I find even more satisfying is the willingness of researchers to work in teams; the collegiality, doing things together and taking advantage of complementary expertise. To me that's immensely satisfying – and I've had the opportunity to do that for 40 years. I've developed relationships that go back that long.

Herbicide-tolerant canola is the norm across Canada today. This is due to work done by you and colleagues who contributed to the first plant gene transformation experiments, and then attracted private investment partnerships to develop this technology. What did it take to bring this technology forward?

There were several different teams involved in the development of herbicide-tolerant canola. Monsanto was working independently on roundup-ready canola, I was collaborating with AgrEvo on Liberty Link canola and there were other types. There was a competitive spirit out there. There's no question Liberty Link was an important contribution.

I talked about the pollen grains and how they could go from pollen directly to a plant. We had a system that would allow for the insertion of genetic information and the recovery of modified plants. We brought that technology to the table.

Three things came together to make this happen: first, we needed a plant-host system, which I was involved in developing, to incorporate the genetic information and recover plants; next, we needed the gene that was of value – the company brought that; and finally, we needed to be able to commercialize the plants coming out the petri dish, to test them in the field and to work with the regulatory agencies to actually register these varieties. That third part was really a collaboration between industry and public plant breeders.

Looking back, did you know how transformative this would be for the agriculture industry?

I could not have imagined it would have been incorporated that quickly across the system; herbicide-resistant canola was readily accepted and, obviously, was beneficial to the producers. It has brought hundreds of millions to Canada's canola industry. It's hard to take credit for one feature, but there's no question that trait was important, and I could not have imagined it would move so quickly.

You have called Ag-West Bio the best job you ever had. How is Ag-West Bio unique in the research landscape in Saskatchewan?

It has been a good job for me because I already had a full career in research. I didn't have to prove anything on my own; I was able to step back and just listen to what people had to tell me. I think that's an important aspect of Ag-West Bio. Ag-West is a coordinator, a facilitator and catalyst to make things happen. We are the advocate for good science and innovation in ag-food. We are responsible for helping to build the ag-food economy.

Ag-West Bio played a pivotal role in helping to develop Protein Industries Canada. What does it take to establish such an initiative?

It takes recognizing opportunities and putting together the expertise that allow you to get things done. It's really about putting people together and building relationships, having discussions and taking a team approach. The best way to think of it is putting together a football team. You can't put out a bunch of independent golfers.

You have been part of and affected a lot of technological change in your career. What do you see for the future of technologies in the biosciences that will help the agriculture industry?

I wish I could predict that accurately – but I can tell you what I see. I think there is continuous advancements in genetic tools and technologies and understanding the mechanisms by improving the genetic systems in crops. There are newer technologies now, called gene editing, that don't involve insertion of a new gene. Researchers can tweak the DNA composition of a gene so that it changes what it does.

We are also focused on sustainability in agriculture. Saskatchewan and Canada are already very good at being sustainable, but there are some frontiers, such as soil and root biology, that have been under-researched. Saskatchewan has some good research happening in this area.

Another area is photosynthesis. Plants only absorb about five per cent of the light (probably only half of that in most cases). If you could improve the effectiveness of photosynthesis it would be a major contribution. I think we can look forward to advances in this area.

What's next for you?

I want to continue my interest in ag innovation. I'm interested in strategic issues: planning, discussions about the future and how we can mobilize more people across the country. I'm the chair of the board of the Agri-Food Innovation Council (AIC). Ag-West Bio is a voice for Saskatchewan. Canada needs an equivalent, and I'm hoping the AIC can do that. I'd like to do my small part helping to foster that.

Ag-West Bio is Saskatchewan's bioscience industry association and bioeconomy catalyst. Its mandate is to accelerate innovation and enable companies to commercialize research.

Protein Industries Canada is an industry-led organization created to position Canada as a global leader of high-quality plant protein. As one of Canada's five innovation superclusters, they invest collaboratively to accelerate innovation and competitiveness of the Canadian plant protein sector.

This article was originally published in Agriview.

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