Plant science professor Don Smith

PHOTO: CLIFF SKARSTEDT

A soybean sorcerer at work

BRONWYN CHESTER | Say soybeans and chances are most of us will think tofu, soya milk, vegetable oil or margarine. But think again. About half of North American soybeans go to animal feed. That requires a whole lot of soybeans and a whole lot of land.

Soya is one of those fortunate crops that is able to fix nitrogen from the air (which is 80% nitrogen and 100% free) thanks to the cosy relationship it enjoys with a certain Bradyrhizobium japonicum. B. japonicum, a bacteria living in the root hairs of the soya seedling, creates itself a node and therein exchanges the plant's sugars for the nitrogen which it alone can render accessible to the soybean plant.

The net result is a plant source of high protein which, in ideal conditions, requires no fertilizer, therefore saving farmers money and the environment excessive nitrogen pollution in the run-off.

The problem is that the ideal conditions exist in south central China, homeland of the small white bean and third most important producer (first is the United States, followed by Brazil), not here. In more northerly climes, soya doesn't germinate as quickly, nor does it fix nitrogen as efficiently, and farmers may add nitrogen fertilizer to enhance the process.

But if there were a way to improve germination and nitrogen fixation in the northerly planted bean, less land would be required to grow the North American crop. What's more, the legume would be more protein-rich meaning more bang for your bean used for animal or human food.

Enter plant science professor Don Smith, recent winner of the New Sun Professorship, a brand new five-year position awarded to Macdonald Campus professors who have made an important contribution in their field and to the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Smith's work on plant physiology, his specialty, led him to develop a formulation of plant-to-bacteria "signal" compounds, which convince B. japonicum (through causing protein in the bacteria to turn on the nodule-forming genes) that the soybean seedling's roots are not as cold as they think they are. The bacteria fall for it, and get on with the job of fixing airborne nitrogen.

The result has been an increase in protein yield of up to 30%, seed yield of up to 39% and in residual nitrogen left in the soil, up to 40%, in comparison to beans that have not been treated with the signal compound.

Smith's work is not confined to the laboratory. In 1996, he incorporated BIOS Agriculture Inc., a company which tests and markets a number of germination-encouraging/nitrogen fixation-encouraging molecular cocktails developed for soya and other crops, such as corn and barley. He began the company, not for profit, but for job creation.

"I had a technician who had worked for me for eight years always on soft money [grants for set periods of time]. I knew that at some time I'd have to fire him. He lives down the road from me and I'd write grant proposals every time I'd see him with his kids. My first motivation was to give him a secure job," says Smith, father of seven-year-old Amy.

Smith, in fact, through the numerous projects he has on the go, creates a lot of employment. BIOS alone, which is an industrial partner with NSERC in several projects, employs 10 people while approximately half of Smith's 12 graduate and all three of his post-doctoral students are remunerated via the grants he receives.

The inventor himself, however, has reaped relatively little in monetary or material benefits for his enterprise aside from a cellular phone from the company and a jacket given to him by one of the companies which distributes BIOS's products. McGill patents Smith's compounds, licenses BIOS to produce and sell them and receives the royalties.

So, why doesn't Smith simply join the company and enjoy the full fruits of his labour? Well, he says, choosing the private sector or the academy is a question of lifestyle. "I like the university environment," says the 45-year-old, who has been at McGill since 1985. "I like the freedom, the contact with students and an environment where the main focus is on information and intellectual activity.

"Besides," he continues, ensconced behind his desk, surrounded by stacks of paper, "they'll tolerate a messy office and me wearing shorts."

Still, Smith is under frequent pressure from the company, which comprises his friends, to join full time. It seems that when it comes time to sell BIOS to a bigger interest, prospective buyers will be reassured if the inventor comes with the purchase.

For the moment, however, Smith will not be moved. He's just begun to co-chair the agricultural committee of a project initiated by a colleague at Queen's University, David Layzell, to study the effect of global warming on Canada. "That's the kind of thing I would miss doing if I were with the company," says Smith. "In industry, you don't get asked to participate in other projects."

Deborah Buszard, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, hopes that beyond the prestige and recognition that the New Sun Professorship will bring its recipients, the prize will help her campus keep its "rising stars," who are all too often lured away by the private sector or richer universities.

This type of directly funded professorship, as opposed to an endowed chair, is a first for Macdonald Campus and McGill. For the next five years, thanks to a generous gift made by Macdonald graduate Joy Harvie Maclaren in celebration of her 55th year of graduation, Smith will enjoy support for travel and organizing a speakers' series as well as a modest boost to his salary.

The beauty of this sort of professorship, says Buszard, is that it relieves some of the campus's salary burden, allowing money to be allocated elsewhere in the faculty, such as for the hiring of more teaching assistants.

Smith himself is delighted to have been chosen by his peers. And he's pleased by a certain poetic justice rendered by the prize's connection to Joy Harvie Maclaren. Smith was born in Saskatchewan at a time when his Nova Scotian father, a farmer, was trying to make a better living for his family by surveying prairie oil fields. He recalls hearing his father speak admiringly of the famous Leduc oil strike, made southwest of Edmonton in 1947.

That land belonged to none other than Eric Harvie, Maclaren's father, and it is, in part, thanks to the wealth generated from the strike that Harvie's and Maclaren's legacies of philanthropy have been possible.

Smith senior never struck his "Leduc," and returned to farming in Nova Scotia when Don was 11, but Smith, the son, has just albeit indirectly begun to tap into the original Leduc strike. As Smith notes: "Somehow, things just seem to have looped back."

Old Sun, New Sun

Old Sun, New Sun, Native/native sons/daughters all: the Macdonald Campus has been blessed with the legacies of Old Sun and his daughter, New Sun.

Old Sun, Eric Harvie, a businessman from Calgary, had great interest in Native culture and education and helped establish the Glenbow Museum, which specializes in Native history and culture. In 1962, the Blackfoot made Harvie Honorary Chief Old Sun, named after the chief who, with Crowfoot, signed Treaty No. 7 with the Canadian government in 1874.

Harvie's daughter, Joy Harvie Maclaren, who graduated from Macdonald Campus in 1944, shares her late father's interest in Native people and wanted both to give back something to her alma mater and to forward the education of Native people. In 1993, she endowed the Old Sun entrance scholarship for Native people wanting to study in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Then, like father, like daughter, Maclaren too was given the honorary title of chief, this time as New Sun, bestowed in 1995 by the Mohawk and Ojibway in recognition of her work for Natives in the Ottawa area.

New Sun, then, is the name given to both the fellowship and professorship established this year at Macdonald. The two-year New Sun Native Fellowship in Environment has been awarded to Métis anthropologist Elmer Ghostkeeper (see last issue) and the five-year New Sun Professorship's first recipient is Don Smith.