John Innes Centre gives breeders scientific tools to develop better crops

John Innes Centre breeders' day. Pictured at the crop trials site at Bawburgh are JIC project leader

John Innes Centre breeders' day. Pictured at the crop trials site at Bawburgh are JIC project leaders Simon Griffiths (left) and Cristobal Uauy. - Credit: Submitted

Fields full of the raw materials which could help plant breeders develop the high-yielding cereals of the future were demonstrated at a scientific open day.

The John Innes Centre's (JIC's) breeders' day aimed to showcase the latest research on crop genetics, and the tools it can offer to speed the development of new varieties containing yield benefits for farmers and nutritional benefits for consumers.

More than 50 visitors including seed companies, agronomists, researchers, agricultural foundations and public funding bodies, looked at crops growing at the Norwich Research Park in Colney, and at the JIC's field trials site at Church Farm in Bawburgh.

Many have been cross-bred using old or foreign landraces – varieties that evolved naturally before the modern reliance on chemicals and seed breeding – which may contain valuable, long-lost traits which could be relevant for modern British agriculture. The JIC stores about 1,200 of them in the Watkins Landrace Wheat Collection.

Trial plots include varieties where traits such as drought tolerance, low nitrogen reliance, and high soluble fibre – identified through genetic mapping – are being incorporated into commercial wheat varieties.

Simon Griffiths, one of the JIC's project leaders, said: 'Most of the plants you see here are not the 'racehorses', but they do carry the genes that breeders currently don't have access to.

'We can see the value of it, and we can tell the breeder how to use it. We now give them toolkits containing 11 bags of seed, representing 11 genes, and the molecular markers they can use to find the genes that are of interest for yield, for end-user quality, and drought tolerance.

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'We tell them if you make these crosses and select using these markers you can bring these new genes into your 'racehorse' varieties. Modern breeding has given us these elite varieties, but they have left some valuable traits behind. We are giving them the tools to get them back and put them into modern varieties.

'The thing about the Watkins Collection is it is all new diversity. We have got landraces containing things the breeders have never selected for.

'The genes we are talking about evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and we are still reshuffling the pack.'

Mr Griffiths said it was a long process to cross-breed new gene discoveries into viable commercial crops.

'From genes discovered at JIC to a breeder trying it out in new varieties takes 20 years,' he said. 'So it is a slow process. They have developed these elite varieties and they have achieved incredible things with the yields, so when we give them a variety to cross it needs to be 'Premier League'.'

Cristobal Uauy, another JIC project leader, said: 'What we have developed is, instead of looking at natural variation, we have generated new variation through mutagenesis. Mutations have been used in breeding for many years, but now we are extracting the DNA of the mutants, and sequencing them, so a breeder can go in and easily access the gene for that mutation.

'We have spent a lot of money in sequencing and it is all publicly available for breeders and for academics. We use these lab rats of plants that tell us something about what the gene does, but they don't tell us what the crop does. But it is enough to give us a hypothesis.'

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