A passion for apples and grapes
Apples and grapes, two of Nova Scotia’s most important crops, are opening research doors at home and in the United States for Dr. Zoë Migicovsky, a bright postdoc geneticist with a self-confessed passion for Nova Scotia.
Genome Atlantic can take some credit for helping to pry those doors open early on. As a doctoral student, she worked with Dr. Sean Myles, Dalhousie’s Research Chair in Agricultural Genetic Diversity and a leading apple breeding expert, on a research project called “Exploiting the Full Potential of the Next Generation DNA Sequencing for Crop Improvement”. It was a Genome Canada project, supported by Genome Atlantic. Dr. Migicovsky also worked with Dr. Daniel Money from the University of Cambridge, and Dr. Kyle Gardner, with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, on the project, which produced “two papers and associated software to help researchers get more genetic information out of their sequencing data.”
Now as a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Migicovsky is busy with another of Dr. Myles’s genomics projects, this one funded by National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada with continuing support from Genome Atlantic. The research is part of his ongoing efforts – and hers – to use genomics to accelerate the traditionally painstaking work of apple breeding.
The work centers on more than 1,000 different apple varieties known as the Apple Biodiversity Collection (http://www.cultivatingdiversity.org/) in Kentville. Working with collaborators at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Kentville, she is helping to comprehensively record a diverse array of traits, or phenotypes, across the apple varieties. By linking together this phenotype information with genetic data to perform genetic mapping, she says, the resulting work will “allow breeders to screen seedlings using genetic markers in order to predict if they possess a trait of interest.”
This approach should help reduce the lengthy and costly process of cross-breeding that requires apple trees to be grown from seedlings to confirm the selection of specific traits. The outcome would be known in advance, based on the genomic evidence in the seedlings – the tool kit of genetic markers Dr. Migicovsky is helping to develop. While apple breeders would still have to evaluate the remaining trees, new commercial cultivar development would become both faster and cheaper.
Dr. Migicovsky is especially interested in pinpointing the sources of variations in fruit for characteristics that fuel consumer appetites, such as colour, shape and flavour. This area of investigation relies heavily on bioinformatics and other data analytic techniques to process vast quantities of phenomic and genomic data generated by the research.
Her abilities have been duly noticed. Fresh from doctoral studies, she was tapped to join a $4.6 million, five-year, multi-institutional American research project, funded by National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program 1546869 and led by Dr. Allison Miller (Saint Louis University/Donald Danforth Plant Science Center). The project, “Adapting Perennial Crops for Climate Change: Graft Transmissible Effects of Rootstocks on Grapevine Shoots”, aims to help the U.S. wine industry weather the impacts of climate change with more resilient and adaptable grape vines. She heads a team assigned to assess the status of grafted grapevines planted in three vineyards across a transect of California, while other teams examine experimental vineyards planted in areas of Missouri, South Dakota and New York state.
Ordinarily, she would have been expected to relocate to the U.S for this work. Instead, she chose to maintain Kentville, the Dalhousie Faculty of Agriculture and the lab of Dr. Sean Myles, one of her doctoral thesis advisors – as home base. She gratefully points out that her American project advisor, Dr. Dan Chitwood, a plant morphologist who uses mathematical models to analyze morphological data from x-ray CT scans at Michigan State University, was among those who championed her cause. As a result, for most of the year she works remotely on the project and she is the only Canadian on the team.
“I love Nova Scotia,” she explains, “and as long as I can do work here, I’d really like to stay in the province.” A native Montrealer, she admits she fell hard for Nova Scotia as an Acadia University undergraduate. The lure was so strong that after graduate studies at the University of Lethbridge, she opted to return to the province for her doctorate.
These days she resides in the Annapolis valley, near Kentville. Outside the lab, she describes herself as a voracious reader with eclectic tastes that range from poetry to thrillers and non-fiction; someone who “loves to write” and enjoys the exploratory side of travel.
On the job, to satisfy the American project, she spends June, July and part of August sampling across three vineyards in the Californian Central Valley. “I work with a team of students to measure traits including physiology, mineral composition, leaf morphology, and gene expression in grafted grapevines,” she said.
The plan, she explains, is to link the data to weather information and learn how the environment, root systems and shoots interact. These are all critical elements in understanding how grapevines respond to the environment around them.
The rest of the time, she is in Kentville analyzing the huge data sets produced by her California team and working on apples.
She is confident that some of the data from the large American project will be transferrable to this province’s wine industry since some of the examined areas have climates relatively similar to Nova Scotia’s.
As fate would have it, the U.S. project focuses on a long-held interest in climate change, a subject she once thought she would be examining through a very different lens. Initially she went to Acadia determined to become an environmental lawyer. That was until a serendipitous biology course got in the way, and so captivated her interest that law school lost its lustre and she set her cap on advanced biology instead.
The switch has proved so inspiring that Dr. Migicovsky now has many fans in the local science and genomics community all watching her career with great interest and hoping that Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada can hang on to her burgeoning talent.