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Michael Pollitt, Rural affairs editor
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
A treasure trove of wheat varieties at the John Innes Centre will play a major role in helping to feed the world over the coming decades.
A £7m project into wheat breeding will use some of the 9,500 varieties stored at Colney to produce future crops able to withstand drought, salt and have enhanced disease and pest resistance.
For the time in 20 years, taxpayers will be funding teams of scientists, led by Prof Graham Moore, of the JIC, to enable plant breeders to produce new varieties.
“We will be giving the plant breeders the tools to produce new wheat varieties,” he said. Having access to this unique collection of wheats and also other wild types would enable scientists to “make full use of this invaluable treasure trove,” said Prof Moore.
The collection has some of the earliest viable wheat varieties in the world including Percival’s Blue Cone dating from the early 1800s and Browick Old True, which was found on a farm near Wymondham in 1844.
Dr Ambrose, who is the collection’s curator, said that a British botanist, A E Watkins, acquired examples of more than 1,000 wheats from around the world in the 1920s and 1930s by asking diplomats to post locally-grown seed home.
These seeds have been kept viable by being re-grown over the decades and since 1990 the entire collection has been at Colney, he added.
Prof Moore, said: “The project will identify factors or traits in plants, which could boost yields by improving drought tolerance or resistance of attack by insects or aphids.”
While it could take more than a dozen years to breed new varieties, the work had already started as scientists have planned crosses of potential interest to plant breeders.
Once researchers have identified the valuable traits, this “pre-breeding” material will then be made available to the commercial sector. And then the plant breeders can potentially cross the new material with precision to develop new varieties, which may be suitable for farmers in Britain, Europe or the developing world.
But the research results and the seed will be made freely available as part of the long-term project, which involves scientists at Cambridge and Rothamsted in Hertfordshire.
Prof Moore, said: “There is an urgent need to improve yields of wheat; it is estimated that in the next 50 years we will need to harvest as much wheat as has been produced since the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago!
The research will be carried out at Colney; NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany) in Cambridge and universities at Bristol and Nottingham. He said that by understanding the precise genetic make-up, it could be possible for breeders to produce new varieties with better disease and pest resistance.
Prof Douglas Kell, chief executive of the Biological and Biotechnology Research Council, said: “We have world-class expertise in wheat research and as our most important staple food, this work will be essential for future food security in the UK.”
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