Canadian researcher tackles toughness of flax straw
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Michael Deyholos began as a "basic researcher" working with fruit flies. But he wanted "to get into something more useful." He found it in flax: one of the world's oldest, most versatile crops for which new uses are being dis...
GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Michael Deyholos began as a “basic researcher” working with fruit flies. But he wanted “to get into something more useful.” He found it in flax: one of the world’s oldest, most versatile crops for which new uses are being discovered.
Deyholos, a biology professor at the University of British Columbia, is working to adjust the toughness of flax plant stems. In the short term, his research could reduce the difficulty of handling flax straw and encourage farmers to grow the crop. His longer-term goal is putting flax straw to productive use.
Canada is the world’s leading producer of flax, which fares best in relatively cool summer weather. North Dakota is the dominant producer of the crop in the U.S.
“In survey after survey of Canadian growers, when asked why you don’t grow more flax, (they say) it’s because of the straw management issue,” he says.
Because of the length of the growing season on the Canadian prairie provinces, where the bulk of the country’s flax is raised, the fiber in Canadian flax straw is exceptionally tough and decomposes slowly in the soil. So, farmers there often burn it.
In a research project that began two years ago, Deyholos and his former graduate student at the University of Alberta (where Deyholos once worked) studied flax stems under a microscope to identify genes responsible for stem growth. Deyholos, who began studying flax in 2002, says the current project has been useful and could help engineer out some of the toughness from its stems, and make it easier for farmers to handle.
Flax comes in two main types: seed and fiber. The fiber variety, grown mainly in Europe, is used for high-quality linen and paper. Canadian and U.S. producers focus on the seed variety.
Deyholos hopes that, in the long run, his research will increase the “extractability” of fibers from Canadian flax stems, allowing the crop to be be used for both seed and fiber.
His goal is making it possible for Canadian farmers to see a profit from flax straw within 10 years.
Long, varied history Through the ages, flax has been used for everything from the wrappings of Egyptian mummies and the paper in the Gutenberg Bible to pioneer clothing and 19th century paint and floor covering.
The crop fell into obscurity before rebounding because of its apparent health benefits. Flax seeds - small, flat and oval - are rich in omega-3 fatty acid, which studies indicate could play a role in fighting cancer and preventing heart attacks.
“Flax seemed like an area that has a lot of potential,” Deyholos says of his decision to focus on the crop. It has “dual uses (seed and fiber), but not a lot of work had been done,” particularly on fiber.
Deyholos recently wrote about his work in the journal Frontiers of Plant Science. To read the article, visit journal.frontiersin.org.