Kovalchuk, Dr. Igor

2013 Winner: Innovation In Agricultural Science Sponsored By Dow AgroSciences Canada Inc.

Because of the groundbreaking work done by Dr. Igor Kovalchuk, fields of medicinal poppies may soon grow in the Canadian prairies and biomonitoring plants will detect pollution in the air, water and earth.

A research trip to study the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on plants surrounding the reactor in Dr. Kovalchuk’s native Ukraine in 1996 launched his career in plant biotechnology. As a result of that project, he described new techniques for profiling genome stability of plants.

Today the professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Lethbridge is considered to be a visionary in the world of agricultural biotechnology. He is internationally renowned for his expertise in plant epigenetics, plant genome stability and plant agrobiotechnology.

Because of his expertise Dr. Kovalchuk was sought out by Canadian biotech company API Labs Inc., to help develop a high-thebaine poppy industry in Canada.

Poppy produces medicinal opiates used for painkillers and cough suppressants, among other purposes. Canada is among the top importers of raw poppy material in the world and leads in consuming codeine as a nonprescription medication.

Growing poppy will reduce the cost of painkillers in Canada and create jobs in the agriculture sector. Poppy has the potential to yield five times more income than canola, which is currently western Canada’s most lucrative crop.

The project uses Dr. Kovalchuk’s powerful imagination and satisfies his need to fill a larger purpose.

“I take satisfaction from creating something scientifically that increases efficiencies and helps society become more prosperous,” he says.

Through his company Plantbiosis, Dr. Kovalchuk is developing new varieties of transgenic plants that monitor the environment for pollutants in water and soil. The first of its kind, the cost-effective technology will provide an early warning system for potential environmental pollution and prevent exposure to possible bacterial contamination.

The biomonitors can be planted near abandoned coal mines, water reservoirs, or in a farmer’s field. When they encounter a pathogen, heavy metals, E. coli, or other contaminants the plants glow. Depending on the scale, the reaction is visualized on the spot or through laser-based aerial or space remote imaging.

Dr. Kovalchuk was instrumental in establishing the first epigenetic network in Canada at the University of Lethbridge. Epigenetics allows scientists to influence gene expression without affecting the underlying DNA. The Alberta Epigenetics Network produces high-calibre research, graduates top trainees and is an incubator for spin off biotechnology companies.

Dr. Kovalchuk has also taught and mentored more than one thousand students, which he considers among his greatest contributions. He’s also provided them with a field of research in which they can continue to build knowledge.

Dr. Kovalchuk is motivated by a healthy competition. He says he is trying to live up to the demanding standards set by the scientists he’s worked with over the years – many of them women.

Every day offers Dr. Kovalchuk a new challenge and new possibilities.

“It’s like working in a gold mine,” he says. “You get dust here and there, a bit of sand, and then you find the big chunk. It’s like a treasure hunt.”