New £4.3m Norfolk crop science station brings the labs into the fields
Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk
A £4.3m crop science station has been unveiled in a Norfolk field - bringing the county's cutting-edge research closer to the farms which could benefit from it.
The Dorothea de Winton Field Station at Church Farm in Bawburgh, outside Norwich, enables the John Innes Centre (JIC) to examine how genes influence plant growth in a real-world commercial farming environment, rather than under the controlled conditions of a glasshouse.
Researchers said trial crops of wheat, peas, barley, and oilseed rape grown on the surrounding farm can be monitored more closely and analysed quickly in the two custom-built laboratories.
The 1,700sqm building also includes specialist climate-controlled grain storage, meeting rooms, seed processing and agricultural equipment storage.
It will be used by JIC researchers and their colleagues from The Sainsbury Laboratory, Quadram Institute and the Earlham Institute, also based at the Norwich Research Park, as part of the combined effort to identify genes which could help plant breeders produce new crop varieties which are more reliable and nutritious, and more resilient to pests, diseases and drought.
The building was officially opened by National Farmers' Union (NFU) president Minette Batters, who said bridging the gap between science and farming was increasingly important as agriculture faces up to its future challenges of Brexit, climate change, and feeding a growing population.
"It is absolutely fundamental for farmers that our policy is driven by science," she said. "So to be able to have scientists, technicians and agronomists that can deliver from the lab and the glasshouse into the field, must be at the heart of what we do.
"It has probably never been more important than it is now, with the whole changing dynamics of our relationship with Europe. It will mean that this centre is very, very important."
JIC director Dale Sanders said it was a "fantastically exciting development" at a crucial time for the crop science community.
"It is impossible, from the outside, to understand what a revolution has taken place in just the last two years in the field of wheat biology," he said. "It is estimated that less than 10pc of the genetic diversity of wheat has been exploited in elite varieties grown, not only in the UK, but around the world.
"The advances in genomic analysis and other approaches, just in the last two years have opened up a whole new arena which makes the opening of this new field station incredibly timely.
"It is not for nothing that the JIC's strapline is 'unlocking nature's diversity', because that is exactly what we will do with this field station. We will unlock the diversity in our crop species and work with breeders to get that diversity out into the field."
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The field station is within 110ha of farmland, 20ha of which contains as many as 12,000 crop trial plots, with the rest farmed commercially - underlining the real-world farming context of the site.
Many of the 6sqm plots contain crosses of an elite UK wheat with a Spanish variety called Garcia, known to be more resistant to drought stress. Scientists aim to use these plants to find the genes responsible for this trait, which could help seed breeders looking to improve the resilience of wheat in a warming climate.
Simon Griffiths, a group leader at the John Innes Centre, said: "The major thing for us is this is our laboratory in the field. It is not just a trials centre, it is about taking the laboratories of the John Innes Centre and moving them right amongst the plots, where we can take regular measurements in realistic agricultural situations, just like UK farmers would work in, so we can see how our discoveries are relevant in the field.
"You can have a high-yielding wheat variety, but you don't know why it is high-yielding, so we find the genes that control the yield and give them to plant breeders so they can deploy they all over the world."
The majority of the funding for the £4.3m building comes from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), while a £0.5m contribution was made by the John Innes Foundation.
WHO WAS DOROTHEA DE WINTON?
The field station is named after Dorothea De Winton, a geneticist who worked for the John Innes Centre from 1920-41.
As a young woman, she became interested in gardening and in 1919 she wrote to the John Innes Horticultural Institute to ask for a job, saying: "At present I know a little botany and the first principles of Mendelism but am intensely interested in it all". She was appointed to the staff on a salary of £150 per year.
During her 20 years there, she became well-known for her work on the genetics of peas and Primula sinensis (Chinese primrose).
Disease problems experienced by staff looking after Dorothea's experimental seedlings led directly to the development of John Innes composts in the 1930s.
Among the guests at the opening of the new field station was Aberdeenshire farmer Anthony de Winter, whose father was Dorothea's first cousin.
"It is a great honour for me to come here," he said. "Dorothea was very educated but had no scientific knowledge at all. She joined as a humble gardener but devoted her life and career to science and botany.
"She worked her way up from the bottom, and she was obviously very popular too. It is fantastic to come here and see her name on the building."