Alfalfa growers aren't being left out in the cold in the fast-growing science of biotechnology.

Roundup Ready alfalfa is expected within two or three years. And transgenic varieties with enhanced yield and cold tolerance may follow closely on its heels.

The latter varieties have been developed by Bryan McKersie, a plant physiologist, and Steve Bowley, a plant breeder, both at the University of Guelph, Ontario. They started by taking DNA from canola and tobacco, modifying it, then inserting it into alfalfa plants.

"With some of the alfalfa varieties, we're getting very dramatic improvements in yield and winter survival," says McKersie, who has been working on the transgenic varieties for 10 years. The varieties don't have a trademark name yet, but the scientists have dubbed them STORE for storage organ enhancement.

In the first and second years of production, the STORE varieties yielded up to 30% more then control varieties. While McKersie points out that it's tougher to quantify their enhanced winterhardiness, in some experiments they had 100% winter survival vs. only 50% for conventional varieties.

"The significance of this research goes beyond alfalfa because it's the first time a plant of any type has been genetically engineered to have improved cold tolerance," says McKersie.

The researchers attribute the yield gains and enhanced cold tolerance in part to the varieties' big root systems.

"The larger roots enable the plants to survive winter better and to produce more forage. They're taking up more nutrients and are able to store more carbohydrates between growth cycles," explains McKersie.

There's been considerable interest in the new varieties from some North American seed companies, but they won't be available in the U.S. or Canada for at least five years. It will take that long to produce enough seed and to work through the legal wrangling that accompanies the development of transgenic plants.

"We used patented technology to develop the new varieties. And in order for them to be commercialized, those patent rights need to be obtained. However, the University of Guelph can't obtain patent rights because it's a public institution. One of the seed companies will need to commercialize these varieties."

McKersie is unsure if growers will have to pay a technology fee to plant them.

"There are additional costs in developing these types of plants and they have to be recovered somehow," he says.

The researchers are also using their gene transfer technology to improve other production characteristics of alfalfa, and to enhance the persistence of white clover and other crops. Funding for the research came from the Ontario Forage Council, the Dairy Farmers of Ontario and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.