It was a weekend walk in the U of G Arboretum that helped Amritpal Singh solve his PhD research problem involving sugar maple tree propagation.
Singh had been trying to clone sugar maples, a challenge that had stumped scientists for decades. Trees grown from seeds often produce inconsistent amounts of sugar from one generation to the next.
“We resemble our parents, but we’re not an identical copy,” says Singh, a research scientist who in 2017 joined the Summerland Research and Development Centre run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Summerland, B.C.
To avoid the genetic seed lottery, maple sugar tree breeders want to use vegetative tissue culture to turn out identical plants that reliably produce lots of sugar in their sap. That would help maple syrup producers looking to cut high energy costs: higher sugar content requires less boiling of sap.
“More than 40 per cent of the cost of maple syrup production is the energy used in boiling sap. We want to propagate trees with high sugar content.”
It’s been an intractable problem for scientists, and no less for Singh. Working in the plant tissue culture lab run by plant agriculture professor Dr. Praveen Saxena, he had tried various growth media and hormone combinations. But nothing was working.
In the arboretum that day, he noticed sugar maples with numerous seedlings growing around them. The youngsters growing in the shade looked much healthier than those in full sun.
Back at the lab, he scoured the literature on plant lighting, then worked with Saxena and plant agriculture professor Dr. Max Jones to make inexpensive custom lighting racks to experiment with different light intensities. Within a month, they were growing healthy plants.
At U of G, Saxena runs the Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation, which uses tissue culture, cryo-biology and other methods to preserve plant biodiversity. Jones is also a GRIPP member.
Since publishing their work, the U of G researchers have had discussions with maple tissue culture specialists at Cornell University. Singh hopes to see his research ultimately benefit maple syrup producers.
Since graduating in 2017, he has used his U of G training in breeding apple and cherry varieties in British Columbia’s Okanagan district. He leads a team of five people in the lab and the field.
Interviewed by The Tyee in B.C. this year, he said his team aims to develop new, high-quality fruit varieties for the Canadian horticulture industry.
Singh’s passion for trees developed in India, where he grew up on a research farm; his father was a dairy chemistry professor there. After completing a master’s degree in India, he worked on fruit trees and horticultural crops at an agricultural university before coming to Canada with his wife in 2012.