Breeder’s tool kit to boost sustainable wheat farming

25th May 2011

A new project being led by the John Innes Centre, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, is to develop a 'breeder's tool kit' that will help breed wheat varieties that produce higher quality flour and reduce wastage, boosting the economic and environmental sustainability of wheat farming in the UK. Working with four breeding companies (RAGT, Limagrain, KWS and Lantmännen SW Seed) and the HGCA will ensure that this toolkit will be exactly what is needed to drive discoveries from fundamental research into improved varieties.

A harvested wheat crop is normally assessed for several quality attributes that influence the ability of its flour to make bread and also affect the money paid to farmers by millers. One such parameter is called Hagberg Falling Number (HFN), which is an indirect measure of the properties that a loaf of bread will have. For example, wheat with low HFN will produce poor quality bread that is very difficult to slice because of sticky crumb.

Millers and other end-users avoid buying wheat grain that has a HFN value below a fixed number. In the last decade, an average of 28% of UK wheat grown for bread has failed to make the grade, and instead was sold for animal feed, which attracts a significantly lower price.

BBSRC, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and HGCA, the cereals and oilseeds division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) are funding a LINK project that will apply the latest scientific knowledge to developing varieties with consistently high HFN.

What determines the HFN of wheat isn't fully understood, but it is heavily influenced by environmental conditions. Cold wet periods in the summer are thought to promote pre-harvest sprouting and reduce HFN, and the unpredictability of the UK climate makes predicting or controlling HFN very difficult. Wheat found to have too low an HFN for bread-making reduces efficient use of resources and contributes to waste in the food chain. Farming practices and management aren't able to reduce the effect of the climate, so there has been much interest in selecting varieties through plant breeding, but this has been hampered by a lack of knowledge about genetic factors that influence HFN.

Previous work involving Rothamsted Research, the JIC , University of Nottingham, Harper Adams University College and a large industrial consortium, which was also funded by Defra-BBSRC-HGCA LINK, took the first steps in discovering regions of the wheat genome that affect HFN. The new project will take this and use it to develop a 'breeder's tool kit' that will allow the four breeding partners to exploit this new knowledge of the genome to produce varieties with consistently higher HFN. This will involve using latest technologies to hone in on the regions, to provide genetic maps that breeders can use to navigate the wheat genome and focus breeding efforts on identifying the genes affecting HFN. The researchers will investigate how these genetic regions affect other important traits, such as yield, and how best the different regions can be combined to work together to produce high HFN values which would be independent of weather conditions.

The £1.34M 4 year project started in November 2010 and is funded by Defra, BBSRC and HGCA. Project partners include RAGT, Limagrain, KWS and Lantmännen SW Seed.

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