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Norwich crop scientists chase the 'achievable dream' of controlling seed loss from oilseed rape

An oilseed rape crop in mid Norfolk. Picture: Matthew Usher.

An oilseed rape crop in mid Norfolk. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© Archant Norfolk 2015

Norwich scientists believe they are a step closer to the "achievable dream" of breeding oilseed rape plants which are less prone to seed loss and more resilient in a warming climate.

Pod shatter is a major issue for oilseed rape growers worldwide who lose between 15-20% of annual yield on average due to prematurely dispersed seeds lost in the field. Picture: The John Innes Centre.Pod shatter is a major issue for oilseed rape growers worldwide who lose between 15-20% of annual yield on average due to prematurely dispersed seeds lost in the field. Picture: The John Innes Centre.

A new study by the John Innes Centre (JIC) establishes a genetic link between increased temperature and the problem of premature seed dispersal or “pod shatter”, which is a major issue for oilseed rape growers, who lose an estimated 15-20pc of yield on average each year due to prematurely dispersed seeds lost in the field.

Research by the JIC team led by Dr Vinod Kumar and Prof Lars Østergaard, reveals that pod shatter is enhanced at higher temperature across species in the commercially-important Brassicaceae family, which also includes cauliflower, broccoli and kale.

Dr Kumar, a co-author of the paper published in the scientific journal Molecular Plant, said this new understanding brings the prospect of creating crops that are better adapted to warmer temperatures a step closer.

“It’s almost as if there is a thermostat that controls seed dispersal, or pod shatter,” he said. “As we learn how it works, we could in the future ‘rewire’ it so seed dispersal does not happen at the same pace at higher temperatures.

“This piece of the puzzle, coupled with the use of advanced genetic tools means that developing temperature-resilient crops becomes an achievable dream.”

The study set out to find out if temperature increases had a direct influence on pod shatter in oilseed rape, and how this is controlled by the plant’s genetics.

“Over the last two decades, scientists have identified the genes that control pod shatter,” said Prof Østergaard. “However, it is not until now that we begin to understand how their activity is affected by the environment, and in this case temperature.”

To study the effects of temperature on seed dispersal, Dr Xinran Li, a postdoctoral researcher, monitored fruit development in Arabidopsis, a model plant related to the important Brassicaceae crops, at three different temperatures 17, 22 and 27 degrees centigrade. This showed that stiffening of the cell wall at the tissue where pod shatter takes place is enhanced by increasing temperature leading to accelerated seed dispersal.

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