Agri-Tech East pollinator: Seed breeders seek closer collaboration with scientists

PUBLISHED: 08:18 17 October 2015 | UPDATED: 08:38 17 October 2015

The Genome Analysis Centre.

The Genome Analysis Centre. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2015

Seed breeders have urged crop scientists to seek industry collaborations earlier in their research process to ensure new discoveries can be quickly translated into farmers’ fields.

Agri-Tech East held an event at The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) in Norwich to explore new innovations in crop breeding – part of a series of “pollinator” meetings to cross-fertilise ideas between academics and the agricultural industry.

One of the speakers was Chris Tapsell, research director at international seed breeder and supplier KWS.

He said his industry needed to make use of all available technologies to breed, select and modify cereal varieties with improved yield potential, resistance to diseases, and the quality characteristics demanded by millers, brewers and bakers.

Centres like the Norwich Research Park are leading the way with rapid advances in molecular technology and cereal genomics research which can map the functions of genes responsible for these traits.

But Mr Tapsell said earlier industry involvement could help direct that work to meet real-world demands, and speed its transition into commercial field trials.

“We have always had good connections between academics and industry,” he said. “The biggest issue is whether we sit down and think long-term enough together?

“The funding is there, but we have got to be cleverer in getting the funding to do the work for the targets we have, and at the same time we have to be able to get funding for the academics to their research that will help them get on with their careers. We have got to get the balance right.

“We want the UK to be a world leader for academic science – and it is – but we also need to link with the applied side and generate research that can do something.

“I am not saying there is a disconnect, but sometimes we want to do something and there is simply not the money to do it.

“For that, the early involvement of industry is important. You (the scientists) need to be in a five-year project and one of the breeders could take something in year two and do the back-crossing and checking, but then you have all the other issues around IP (intellectual property) and confidentiality.

“We are in a great position, but we need to build on it, and work even closer together in addressing some of the issues we have got now, which is how to apply this technology.”

Mike Bevan, deputy director of the John Innes Centre, said: “I don’t think there is a disconnect – disease resistance and yield development are academically interesting subjects.

“As academics, we need to find ways to provide the industry with things that are useful.

“We have worked with breeders for a long time, but now is a crucially important time to strengthen these links because of the technology development that’s going on in sequencing, genomic work and phenotyping. All of these things are in an advanced state of development. We just need to ensure that our communications are optimal and tailored to the needs of industry. That is the point of meetings like this.”

Pod shatter progress

The progress in resolving a perennial problem for oilseed rape growers was explained to delegates at the pollinator meeting.

Prof Lars Ostergaard, head of crop genetics at the John Innes Centre, is researching how to stop the premature dispersal of seeds through pod shatter.

He said a gene was identified in the 1990s which governed the opening of the seed pod in a plant which is genetically a more simple relative of the oilseed rape plant. That gene has since been modified to modulate this activity to the optimum level.

“Plants have evolved ingenious ways of dispersing their seeds in the optimum way,” said Prof Ostergaard. “The seed dispersal for wheat and barley was sorted hundreds of years ago, but remains a problem for farmers of oilseed rape who lose 15-20pc of their harvest due to premature fruit opening in the field.

“Our work was carried out with a close relative of oilseed rape, and the next step is to go from this simple brassica to exploit the knowledge we have found into the oilseed rape crop.

“It has taken nearly 20 years to get to the point where we are now almost ready to provide breeders with the material that they can cross into varieties.”

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