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'This is the culmination of a dream' – Norwich crop scientists celebrate 'speed-cloning' breakthrough

Crop researcher Dr Sanu Arora of the John Innes Centre with domestic wheat and a wild relative. Picture: Andrew Davis

Crop researcher Dr Sanu Arora of the John Innes Centre with domestic wheat and a wild relative. Picture: Andrew Davis

Andrew Davis

A “speed cloning” technique has been pioneered by Norwich gene scientists in a breakthrough which could accelerate the fight against diseases threatening the world’s food crops.

Researchers at the John Innes Centre, on the Norwich Research Park, have developed a method called AgRenSeq which allows them to rapidly recruit disease resistance genes from wild plants and transfer them into modern crops.

It opens up access to some natural disease-fighting capabilities lost from today’s elite food crops, which have historically been bred to favour commercial and agronomic traits such as higher yields.

The new technique developed in partnership with scientists in the USA and Australia enables researchers to search a genetic “library” of resistance genes discovered in wild relatives of modern crops.

Laboratory techniques can then be used to clone the genes and introduce their benefits into elite crop varieties to protect them against potentially devastating infections and pests such as rusts, powdery mildew and Hessian fly.

Dr Brande Wulff, a project leader at the John Innes Centre, said by making crops more resilient against disease, the breakthrough will help to improve yields and reduce the reliance on pesticides.

“This is the culmination of a dream, the result of many years’ work,” he said. “Using speed cloning and speed breeding we could deliver resistance genes into elite varieties within a couple of years, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

“We have found a way to scan the genome of a wild relative of a crop plant and pick out the resistance genes we need: and we can do it in record time. This used to be a process that took ten or 15 years and was like searching for a needle in a haystack. Now we can clone these genes in a matter of months and for thousands of pounds instead of millions.”

Dr Wulff’s laboratory has also recently pioneered the technique of “speed breeding” which uses enhanced LED lighting to fast-track genetic improvements in crops – and he sees AgRenSeq as the perfect complementary technology.

READ MORE: Norwich crop scientists make ‘speed breeding’ breakthrough

The research published in the journal Nature Biotechnology reveals that AgRenSeq has been successfully trialled with wheat, and this work could now pave the way for the method to be used in protecting other crops which have wild relatives, including soybean, pea, cotton, maize, potato, wheat, barley, rice, banana and cocoa.

Dr Sanu Arora, first author of the paper, said the new method combines high-throughput DNA sequencing with state-of-the-art bioinformatics.

“What we have now is a library of disease resistance genes and we have developed an algorithm that enables researchers to quickly scan that library and find functional resistance genes,” she said.

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