£13M to harness science for better crops
[BBSRC news release]
The UK’s primary public funder of bioscience research has announced over £13M of research projects to turn ideas from excellent basic plant science into practical applications to benefit the UK’s farmers and consumers.
With the challenges to agriculture posed by climate change and an increasing need to grow and farm in sustainable ways the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has awarded funding to 18 projects that will aim to address real-world issues. New research will exploit the world-class basic plant science and plant genetics in the UK to improve the sustainability of agriculture and look at problems including:
- How to grow crops able to cope with climate change
- How to breed vegetables that remain nutritious after days in the fridge
- How to grow more effective biofuels to help reduce the UK’s dependence on fossil fuels.
- How to exploit plants more effectively to produce better bread, beer, biodegradable carrier bags and for other applications.
These and other projects funded by the BBSRC Crop Science Initiative are described in a full media briefing.
Professor Julia Goodfellow, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: “The UK is home to some of the best plant science in the world. We want to harness this and exploit it to address some of the pressing issues that we face. BBSRC’s aim is to support basic crop research that will produce outcomes to make farming more sustainable and able to meet the challenges of a changing environment.”
The BBSRC Crop Science Initiative follows an earlier review of the Council’s support for crop science which found that UK crop research needed to better translate basic plant science into new crop varieties to help growers, industry and consumers. The projects announced today are intended to help do this.
NEW VARIETIES OF WHEAT AND BARLEY FOR BETTER BREAD, BEER AND BIODEGRADABLE BAGS
The Smart Carbohydrate Centre will produce varieties of wheat and barley that contain new, improved types of starch. Starch is the main component of flour and malt. The type of starch in these products affects the quality of bread and beer and the cost of bioethanol production. Pure starch from flour is used in processed foods, paint, glue, paper, cosmetics, and biodegradable packing and plastic. Each of these uses ideally needs a different type of starch. At present, UK varieties of wheat and barley all have rather similar types of starch. The researchers will collect and study varieties from around the world that have different types of starch, then consult a panel of experts -including breeders, millers, bakers and nutritionists -to decide which of these will be useful. With this information, we can start to breed new varieties that will benefit industries using flour, malt and starch, and also farmers, crop breeders and consumers.
Contact: Prof Alison Smith, John Innes Centre
HARNESSING THE GENES OF WILD WHEAT RELATIVES
Wild relatives of wheat have useful characteristics such as increased tolerance to drought, salt and cold and disease resistance. To meet the requirements of growing wheat under climate change and poor soil conditions, it will become increasingly important to be able to exploit such characteristics by transferring the genes responsible for such traits to wheat. However this transfer into wheat by conventional breeding is very difficult. Wheat has three sets of genetic information, or genomes, which inherently should make wheat genetically unstable. Stability is conferred by a gene complex, known as Ph1, which effectively prevents recombination of genes across the different genomes -genes in genome A can only recombine with genes from A, B with B, etc. However this makes it very hard to get desirable genes from wild species into modern wheat varieties. Following extensive research into the Ph1 mechanism, the scientists are investigating how to temporarily switch off the Ph1 gene complex using drugs, allowing breeders to transfer in useful “wild” genes without upsetting the genetic stability in the field. This method could greatly increase the pool of genetic material breeders can use to improve varieties.
Contact: Prof Graham Moore, John Innes Centre
A SECOND GREEN REVOLUTION FOR A CHANGING CLIMATE
The ‘Green Revolution’ increased wheat yields worldwide partly through the introduction of shorter varieties where less of the plants’ energy was wasted producing straw. These plants were also stronger and more capable of bearing the increased yields. The new dwarf varieties carried a gene that made them unresponsive to the plant’s own growth hormone. Changes in climate, agricultural practice and possible future restrictions in the use of fertilisers and growth-regulating chemicals mean that current varieties may no longer be as effective. Part of this collaboration between Rothamsted Research and John Innes Centre is aimed at identifying additional sources of dwarfing genes in wheat. A second aim is to test dwarfing genes for their effectiveness in protecting plants from drought and other stresses. The researchers plan to introduce these novel genes into modern varieties that commercial breeders can develop into the next generation of bread wheats.
Contacts: Dr Andy Phillips, Rothamsted Research, Prof Nick Harberd, John Innes Centre
Notes to Editors
Full information on the background to BBSRC’s Crop Science Review and the Crop Science Initiative is available at: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/science/initiatives/crop_science.html.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £350 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. www.bbsrc.ac.uk