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Meet a Researcher – Tyler Wist, research scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Tyler Wist joined Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Saskatoon Research and Development Centre (RDC) as an entomologist in January 2016. Wist earned his master’s degree in specialty crops from the University of Saskatchewan (USask) and completed his PhD at the University of Alberta. Before completing his master’s degree, he was an undergraduate at USask and worked for the city of Saskatoon in pest control where he got his passion for controlling insects. Wist lives in Saskatoon with his wife and three daughters.

Where did you work before the Saskatoon RDC?

Before I was working at the Saskatoon RDC, I was working at the Saskatoon RDC. I did a post-doc there under Chrystel Olivier, entomologist, working on aster yellows and cereal aphids in wheat, barley and oats and looking at the natural enemies that were attacking them.

We created an app, Cereal Aphid Manager, which includes economic thresholds for each crop, the ability to track aphid populations (if they are increasing or not) and natural enemies and how many aphids they can take out of a population in a day (the dynamic action threshold).

We are still collecting data and refining the model, but the app is freely available.

What is the best part about your job?

Well, it’s definitely not the paperwork! I think the best part is when I can actually get out into the field and see the insects in action and watch what they are doing on the plants.

For example, we had some cereal leaf beetles in my wheat crop this year, so I brought them in and put them under the microscope and made a video of the cereal leaf beetle larva feeding. Now I can connect that feeding behavior to those longitudinal feeding scars they leave on the leaves. It's really, really fascinating to watch.

This and other videos are all available on the Field Heroes YouTube channel or @FieldHeroes on Twitter. If you are into beneficial insects like I am, I would suggest getting in touch with this account. It’s full of fun and great, short bursts of information teaching you about different beneficial insects, like what they do and how many pest insects they can kill in a day.

Tell us a bit about what you’re working on at Saskatoon RDC.

Since my post-doc, I’ve been running multiple projects looking at the effects of aster yellows on different crops. We looked at camelina and wheat, and then I got involved in a flea beetle project looking at the striped and crucifer flea beetle. Through this research, we revisited economic thresholds to see if anything changed based on different parameters in the field. Alejandro Costamagna led this research with entomologists in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta working together on the same issue.

When I first joined AAFC, my mandate was to solve wheat midge, which I thought was already solved with the SM1 gene. As I learned more about it, I realized single gene resistance is not something you want to rely on for the rest of your wheat-growing career, as it can break down quickly. We’ve seen it in canola where diseases have overcome single resistance genes in no time.

Back in 2013 and 2014, there were big outbreaks of wheat midge up in the Peace River region where they had never seen it before, and then it was everywhere. This sparked a project looking at tools used to monitor wheat midge through Jennifer Otani, AAFC and master’s students.

I am currently reviewing data from the third year of the Alternatives to Sm1: hairy glumes, awns and egg antibiosis for managing wheat midge research project. Through this research, we are taking a few different traits that have the potential to reduce wheat midge on the plant, such as hairy glumes, awns and egg antibiosis, and stacking them on top of the SM1 gene to protect it. We have found that some of these traits work together to make the SM1 gene work better. We are not certain if it is one gene or a few genes, but when it is in a plant with SM1, it takes the resistance up to almost 100 per cent, which is very exciting.

What can you say about the value of farmers providing funding and support to your organization?

The value is huge. Thank you very much for all of those check off dollars that go through groups like Manitoba Crop Alliance and other commodity organizations. We have the clusters (five-year projects) for larger projects that you get a lot of people working together, but without the research dollars from farmers themselves, we wouldn’t be able to do these smaller, but important, projects, or even the large, cluster-type projects. Thanks very much for believing in us.

How does that farmer funding and support directly benefit farmers?

We are working on these traits that, hopefully, can reduce the need for insecticides and reduce the effect of insects on your crops. The direct benefit to farmers is increasing yield and decreasing damage and reducing insecticide inputs. That is sort of my goal in doing my research.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

I do plenty of things outside of work! I started playing soccer after about a 20-year hiatus. I don’t play well, but I play in a men’s indoor and outdoor league in Saskatoon. I coach my youngest daughter in soccer and I enjoy riding my bike. I am pretty involved at church as well.

How do you celebrate agriculture?

By wearing my RealAgriculture hat and my #MidgeBusters t-shirt out in the field. I try to transmit the things I’ve learned to the people that need to know them (agronomists, farmers). I also like raising a glass of things that are produced by agriculture, say from a barley or rye crop.

What gets you most excited about your work?

The interaction of insects with the plants and the insects with each other. Finding new forms of resistance and finding new ways to protect plants from insect attacks gets me really interested and excited.

Follow @TylerWist1 on Twitter!