Living Exhibition celebrates a century of plant breeding
The John Innes Centre has grown a living exhibition of how plant breeding has evolved over the last 100 years.
This year would have been the centenary of the Plant Breeding Institute, whose research formed the backbone of crop research until its privatisation in the late 1980s. Opened in Cambridge in 1912, PBI’s groundbreaking science and plant breeding technology saw it develop a host of new crop varieties. The plant breeding activities were transferred to Unilever, and its research activities to the John Innes Centre.
To celebrate the centenary of PBI’s foundation the JIC is holding a conference bringing together former PBI staff, among whom are some of today’s leading plant researchers and breeders.
A centrepiece to this is a living exhibition made up of some of the 130 varieties that, over the last century have driven UK agriculture. ‘Yeoman’ wheat, introduced in 1916, was a landmark variety, showing that high-yielding, good baking-quality wheat could be bred and successfully grown in Britain. ‘Proctor’ barley led to a tripling of UK barley production. ‘Maris Piper’ potatoes were introduced in 1963 to be resistant to nematodes and are still a leading potato variety today. By the time of its privatization almost 9 in 10 of the varieties of cereal crops being grown in the UK had been developed by PBI.
Many of the former staff still play vital roles in the UK plant breeding and plant science community. 90 staff moved to labs in Norwich, which merged into the John Innes Centre. The PBI legacy has been integral to the success of the JIC.
Last year, plant breeding research was given a great boost with a new project coordinated from JIC to make improvements in wheat, our biggest crop. Yield increases are needed to cope with global population rising to 9 billion by 2050. Crop diseases are spreading to new areas driven by climate change. New sources of genetic diversity are needed and the latest science can deliver them.
Wild wheat relatives are also being grown as part of the exhibition, which provide a link from historical wheat breeding through to the future. These wild grasses were crossed with wheat to introduce traits, but that “introgression” was limited. Now scientists plan to repeat those crosses and with new technology the traits will be introduced more widely into the wheat genome and could bring unforeseen benefits.