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Genomics of Sunflower


Generating solutions




Competition in Applied Genomics Research in Bioproducts or Crops (ABC)

Genome Centre(s)



Project Leader(s)

Fiscal Year Project Launched


Project Description

The sunflower family (Compositae; so-called because their flowering heads are made up of many tiny flowers), is the largest plant family on earth, with over 24,000 described species, roughly 10% of all flowering plant species. They include economically important crops (sunflowers, lettuce, artichokes), beautiful wildflowers (daisies), common allergens (ragweed, goldenrod), valuable medicinals and costly invasive plants and rangeland weeds (thistles, dandelions). Despite the wide diversity and economic importance of plants in this family, there is no genome sequence for any of these species, or even any plants from closely related families. This has delayed genetic research and crop breeding.

Despite the rather large genome size of Compositae, recent advances in DNA sequencing technology (so-called “next-generation” sequencing) now make it practical to sequence their genomes. Our project will use both these new technologies along with more conventional sequencing methods to obtain the DNA sequence of the entire cultivated sunflower genome. Having an entire genome sequence will facilitate scientific research across this diverse plant family, with applications ranging from crop improvement to weed control to the development of wood-producing sunflower varieties. For example, it will allow us to characterize genetic and morphological variation among domesticated sunflower lines, relating genetic differences to important crop characteristics. This will facilitate molecular breeding programs for the improvement of commercial crops. A second application will be the development of sunflower as a new fuel (biofuel) source with unique advantages as an annual woody plant. Biofuel development will exploit wood-producing ecotypes of two extremely drought tolerant, woodforming, desert-dwelling wild species: silverleaf sunflower (H. argophyllus) and Algodones dune sunflower (H. tephrodes). This will allow farmers to grow small, woody trees (a source of biofuel) in a single year while simultaneously using the sunflower seeds for edible oil. Such a dual-use crop has great economic potential.

Our project will increase the speed and precision of sunflower-breeding programs by identifying molecular markers for beneficial genes that encode important agricultural traits such as seed-oil content and flowering time. We will exploit Canada’s strong genomics infrastructure and leadership in Compositae genomics and use this infrastructure and expertise to full advantage in collaboration with experts world-wide.

Integrated GE3 LS Research Component:  Intellectual Property and Regulatory Issues for Genetically Modified Plants
GE3LS Project Leader:  Emily Marden, University of British Columbia

The Genomics of Sunflowers project will sequence the genome of the sunflower, Helianthus annuus, which will facilitate scientific research across this diverse plant family with potential applications ranging from crop improvement to weed control to the development of wood producing sunflower varieties. In addition to the sequencing effort, the project will increase the speed and precision of sunflower breeding programs by identifying molecular markers for beneficial genes underlying important agricultural traits such as seed oil content and flowering time.

The project will also develop the genomic tools and resources needed to breed sunflower cultivars with woody stalks – a development that may lead to the improvement of sunflower oilseed crops and biofuel development. Given these potentially significant economic benefits, the integrated GE3 LS project aims to consider the potential legal and regulatory implications of the research. Thus, the GE3 LS project will complement this genomic research by investigating the relevant Intellectual Property (IP) issues and regulatory context of the scientific work and its potential applications.

The GE3 LS project will be led by Emily Marden and Ed Levy, experts on IP and regulatory law in genomics. The primary component of their research will investigate the type of data and IP that will be generated by this project, how the potential for IP will be handled between the University-Industry Liaison Office and cofunders, and whether alternative approaches to IP could forward scientific research or access to the ultimate benefits of the projects. The second arm of the GE3 LS research will address ongoing regulatory discussions around genetically modified agriculture and food products, and the specific questions for modified sunflower plants for food and/or biofuel uses.