Waste Not

In industry and on campus, Tritons shape a sustainable world.

The saving begins in bright yellow fields of the canola plant, whose seedpods hold small, peppercorn-like seeds that eventually become the cooking oil you have in your cupboard. Not long ago, for every bottle of canola oil that reached a pantry shelf, just as many of the seeds it took to make it were left wasted in the fields. This is no longer the case, however, thanks to some basic science research out of the lab of UC San Diego biologist and alumnus Marty Yanofsky ’78.

A farmer inspects a canola field.

The trouble was in those seedpods—ever since canola’s rise in the 1970s, its farmers faced a vexing problem: a significant portion of canola seeds were wasted due to “pod shattering,” when ripe seedpods open onto the ground before or during harvesting. For decades, it was common to see more than half of a crop wasted due to pod shattering, while weather events like hailstorms could devastate entire fields.

When Yanofsky learned of this problem, he saw a plant biology challenge waiting to be solved. His laboratory already had deep experience studying a relative of canola, Arabidopsis, so beginning in the early 1990s, Yanofsky and members of his lab set out to identify the genes that control fruit opening—a painstaking process that took years to find success.

“The end result was very satisfying,” says Yanofsky, who shares credit for the discovery with Sarah Liljegren, PhD ’99, Sherry Kempin and Cristina Ferrandiz, three scientists in his lab at the time. “We were able to put together a rather simple model that explains how these genes control the fruit-opening process.”

After patenting their discovery, the team looked to apply their findings to solve the pod shattering problem in canola. Working with commercial partners, they demonstrated that these very same genes could be manipulated to strengthen the seedpod and prevent pod shattering in canola plants.

The first canola plants resistant to pod shattering were launched in 2015 and farmers have been ecstatic over the innovation ever since. Many call it a game-changing technology because it completely transforms the way canola is harvested. And perhaps most importantly, the breakthrough is a boon for the planet—a revolutionary leap forward in sustainable farming.

“Since this technology can dramatically increase seed yield, farmers can get the same yield on less land, meaning fewer chemical pesticides, fertilizers and less water,” says Yanofsky. “Under the effects of climate change, farmers are having to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and consider more severe weather conditions. So this has been incredible technology for farmers as they sustainably adapt their crops.”

Today, in countries around the world, the ripples of Yanofsky’s shatterproof seeds are expanding on environmental fronts as threats from climate change continue to rise. Where once severe climate events could significantly impact food supply globally and farmers’ livelihoods locally, these very real applications of basic science have made both aspects more capable of weathering uncertainty.

“Many discoveries are made in the lab and while you think they could have an impact, they never see the light of day,” says Yanofsky. “This one emphasizes how basic scientific research can have a profound impact—in this case, revolutionizing canola agriculture and sustainable farming.”


Learn about student conservation efforts at UC San Diego.