Investment in cereal genomics to breed better varieties

3rd Jan 2012

Two new research projects were announced on the 21 December, that aim to make an important contribution to global efforts to breed improved cereal crops.

The projects hope to shed further light on the genomes of wheat and barley, the two most widely grown cereal crops in the UK. Researchers hope that this will provide breeders with the tools to develop new varieties more quickly and efficiently and so help to provide sustainable and nutritious food for a growing world population.

Over £7m will be invested in the two projects, both of which are funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The sequencing facilities at The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) in Norwich will be used to work on both genomes.

Wheat and barley are the two most widely grown crops in the UK – wheat alone is planted on 60% of arable land – and they are of enormous value to the economy. However efforts to increase yields and to breed new varieties of these crops have not kept pace with other globally important cereals and this needs to be addressed if we are to feed a growing population sustainably.

Professor Jane Rogers, Director of The Genome Analysis Centre, will lead the wheat project and is also part of the team working on the barley project. She said “I’m confident that over the next few years we will see a great acceleration in progress for barley and wheat breeding as we have already seen for maize and rice.”

The team working on the wheat project includes researchers from John Innes Centre (JIC), The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) and Rothamsted Research (RRes), all of which receive strategic funding from BBSRC, and the EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) near Cambridge.

They aim to produce definitive, high-quality wheat sequence data that will have long term value for scientists and breeders. This is a considerable challenge as wheat has a complicated genome that is five times the size of that of humans so an international collaboration has divided the task between a number of different laboratories. This project will sequence four chromosomes of an experimental wheat line called Chinese Spring to a high degree of accuracy. These sequences will then be used as the reference standard by wheat breeders and researchers worldwide. The researchers hope that, when combined with the efforts of other scientists around the world, they will gain a complete picture of the genetic basis of a wide range of traits in wheat such as yield, quality and disease resistance.

Professor Michael Bevan and Dr Cristobal Uauy of the John Innes Centre, and Dr Andy Phillips of Rothamsted Research will lead work using the genome to unlock useful variation in multiple wheat varieties to support breeding and gene discovery.

Professor Bevan commented “This project builds on the strong foundation of wheat genomics made with past BBSRC support as, by identifying useful genetic traits, it will enable the benefits of wheat genome analysis to be directly used by breeders and researchers. The project will also help generate new knowledge that will be used by the BBSRC- funded wheat germplasm improvement programme and by international collaborators, notably with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.”

The Barley project will be led by Professor Robbie Waugh from the James Hutton Institute near Dundee with partners at TGAC and EMBL-EBI. This new funding will help the UK team to coordinate international efforts to derive a high quality barley genome sequence, to transform this genomic information into a platform to understand barley genetic traits and ultimately to enable isolation of the underlying genes.

Because barley and wheat are closely related it makes sense that scientists at TGAC will work on them both together. Barley is often grown on arable land that isn’t suitable for wheat because it is better able to produce reliable yields in the face of drought and poorer soils. High quality barley is crucial for the the highly profitable brewing and malting industries that consume around a third of grain crop every year, but the health benefits of eating barley are also well known.

Prof Waugh explains “Basically, when considering cereals, barley is grown where you can’t grow wheat”. He believes that there is scope to use barley more widely as a food ingredient, for example as a partial replacement for wheat flour in bread or as a thickening agent in processed foods. “However, some of the qualities that make barley desirable as a food are essentially the opposite of those that breeders have traditionally focused on to meet the needs of the large, premium malting and distilling markets.”

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said “This funding adds to BBSRC’s growing strategic investment in cereal genomics and breeding following the announcement earlier this year of a £7m wheat pre-breeding programme. Cereals are the staple foods of most people around the world and, if we are to feed a growing world population of 7 billion people and counting, we need to increase yields at a greater rate than we are currently achieving. To do this we need to work smarter, providing breeders with detailed information about the genomes of important crops so they can breed in new traits more quickly and efficiently.”

The wheat genome research has been granted a BBSRC strategic Longer and Larger award (sLoLa). sLoLas provide internationally-leading research teams with the resources to conduct multidisciplinary research to address major global challenges.

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