Parsnip breeder benefits from research partnership

15th Aug 2011

Crop breeding is a race against time. It can take up to 18 years to bring a new hybrid variety to market using traditional plant breeding techniques and, as Robin Wood, Managing Director of Elsoms Seeds, is well aware, time not selling costs money.

A recent BBSRC-sponsored knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) has provided Elsoms with the skills and resources needed to implement genetic marker technology within their company, which could reduce the time to market for new parsnip varieties by up to five years.

Parsnip seed production is a tricky business. Even with modern seed treatments, germination is slow and the seed does not keep well. As a relatively small-scale field crop, the parsnip is not top of global seed companies' agenda when it comes to major research investment; so it remains an 'orphan crop' ­– one without a fully-sequenced genome – where, until very recently, the development of new varieties has relied solely on experienced breeders knowing which plants to cross to create new hybrids.

Elsoms Seeds has a large UK market share in the parsnip seed business but wanted to improve breeding methods using marker technology in order to remain competitive. This approach could offer an alternative to assessing offspring plants purely by their appearance (which is very time consuming). Instead plants are screened in the lab for a genetic marker – a piece of DNA - that indicates the presence of the trait that the breeder is trying to select for.

As the Managing Director Robin Wood explains, "We wanted to reduce the number of years taken to breed new varieties. It can take seven generations to create a pure parent line, one where all the resultant offspring have predictable characteristics. Two quality parent lines are required for a hybrid variety. Seed production takes another year, and then we need to make sure the hybrid performs well in small field trials. In total we're looking at an investment of up to 18 years to bring a new F1 hybrid to market. With the marker approach we would be able to test a sample of offspring plants for a particular trait and if they were homozygous for the marker we could go to the next step there and then."

But although this approach is common place in maize and wheat and increasingly used in brassica breeding programmes, the protocols and marker system weren't available for the parsnip.

"We knew that there were skills out there to help us," says Wood. "But, as a small family-firm, investing in a research programme represented a big risk."

Thinking outside the box

Instead, Wood got in touch with some former colleagues at Horticulture Research International, now known as Warwick Crop Centre, who had been involved in the part BBSRC-funded brassica genome project and who had developed next generation sequencing expertise as a result.

Wood recalls, "Someone mentioned the KTP scheme and it seemed to offer the ideal solution: providing the researchers with the opportunity to think laterally and apply their genomics expertise in one crop to a real business problem in another, and providing us with a way to tap into their knowledge base but without all the costs."

One of the key features of the KTP approach is that it provides a postgraduate 'Associate' to work on the project and learn business-relevant skills.

"It's like a modern day apprenticeship but without the ties," says Wood.

For Luke Bell, the KTP-Associate on this project, this meant working closely with researchers at Warwick Crop Centre in order to establish the protocols needed to set up a marker assisted breeding facility at Elsoms Seeds. The approach was to introduce existing genetic marker technology from a closely related species, the carrot.

The facility is now up and running: "We're chuffed to bits and it's good for staff to see we are making investments in technology," says Wood.

Win-win situation

Luke, who is now employed by Elsoms to develop the technology for other crops, and has both an MSc and a management diploma with the Chartered Management Institute to his name, says, "Working on the KTP project was very demanding, but the rewards are something I could not have imagined whilst I was studying at university only two years ago."

"This project provided us with an excellent opportunity to improve our understanding of the breeder's needs and how we can transfer academic knowledge to further their goals," says Graham Teakle from Warwick Crop Centre – "The success of this project has led to a good working relationship and a number of areas for future collaboration have been identified, one of which has already been funded."

"We're now more prepared to take the plunge," says Wood. "Over the next 10 years we'd like to expand our use of marker technology so it works hand-in-hand with our plant breeders: screening entire populations for unique traits and selecting individuals from which to breed from.

"We also want to breed a wider range of crops that we can sow at different times of the year, which will make better use of our resources.

"Ultimately, by producing consistently higher quality seed and continuously improving varieties, this will lead to reduced waste for growers and better quality food for consumers

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