Industrial scale plant breeding to develop sustainable varieties of wheat

31 Mar 2016 16:52:59.823

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Take the wild and distant relatives of bread wheat, transfer any agronomically important traits you can find into modern varieties of wheat and distribute the newly created germplasm worldwide for exploitation in international breeding programmes and scientific research.

This is the immense task facing husband and wife team Professor Ian and Dr Julie King and their team of experts at the newly established Wheat Research Centre (WRC) at The University of Nottingham. Their new industrial scale ‘shotgun’ approach to plant breeding has only been made possible through technological advances and specific breeding strategies but it could help to guarantee the sustainability of one of our leading sources of food.

The new research centre in the School of Biosciences will be officially opened by ‘super woman of wheat’ and influential advocate for wheat research and science Jeanie Borlaug Laube, daughter of Norman E Borlaug who received a Nobel Prize for his lifetime of work to feed a hungry world. The event will take place at Sutton Bonington Campus at 11am on Monday 11 April 2016.

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Professor King said: “Wheat is related to a large number of other species many of which are wild and uncultivated. These wild relatives, unlike wheat, provide a vast and largely untapped reservoir of genetic variation for potentially most, if not all, agronomically important traits. These traits can be used in the development of new higher yielding varieties, adapted to the changing environment.”

Bread wheat has been an essential part of the human diet for thousands of years. It is a hybrid of three different species of grass – a cross which is reputed to have taken place only once or a very few times about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.  As a result, modern day bread wheat varieties possess low amounts of genetic variation making them vulnerable to climate change and disease. With the world population estimated to grow to 9 billion by 2050 and the Earth’s resources under severe strain predicted wheat yields are not expected to meet the increased demand for food. So plant breeders require new genetic variation within each crop species so they can adapt to different environments – such as drought, flooding or disease resistance.

Putting genetic variation back into wheat

WRC is part of the BBSRC funded Wheat Improvement Strategic Programme (WISP). New technological advances (developed in a collaboration between Nottingham, Bristol University and the company Affymetrix and also Nottingham and the Chinese Academy of Sciences) are now enabling the high throughput detection of single chromosome segments (introgressions) from wild relatives, which carry new genetic variation, introduced into wheat. This means the Nottingham group can transfer these tiny bits of genetic information from the wild relatives into wheat on a large scale creating a step change in the search for new varieties of wheat that will cope with disease and climate change and help feed a growing population.

Dr King said: “We are working ‘shot gun’. We are transferring as many segments of different chromosomes as possible from as many different species as possible so they can be screened for any of the traits the breeders are interested in. What we’ve done in four and a half years is produce hundreds of introgressions - this vast reserve of genetic variation will form the basis for new variety development in the future.”

 Professor King said: “Breeders have done a fantastic job of using the genetic variation that already exists but there’s been a plateauing of yields. Our research has dramatically speeded up the natural hybridisation process so we can develop new lines of wheat on an industrial scale.”

First lady of wheat to open Wheat Research Centre 

The new centre will be officially opened by Jeanie Borlaug Laube, known as ‘the first lady of wheat’. She has followed in the footsteps of her late father, a wheat breeder who led efforts to develop high-yielding, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat varieties in the mid-20th century.  His work is estimated to have helped save more than 1 billion lives in Pakistan, India and other areas of the developing world. Jeanie is co-chair of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative and is involved with the Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women and Triticum Mentor Award which honours mentors of both genders who support women working in triticum (cereal grain) and its nearest relatives and is also the vice president of the Borlaug Training Foundation.

Jeanie said: “I am not a trained scientist and have never studied agriculture or science but I work closely with women who are out in the field learning how to become scientists and experts in the profession. We need to find plants that require less fertiliser, less water and contain more protein. I want to continue my father’s mission to ‘feed the world’ and it is centres like this at The University of Nottingham which have the potential to ensure our children and future generations are fed no matter where they are in the world.”

Sowing the seeds for the future and making them freely available

In the last four and a half years the Kings have created 25,000 crosses. Their seed store is packed with more than 500,000 seeds. All the material they produce must be freely available but it can only be made available when they have shown that the important genetic variation from a wild relative is stable – homozygous – and can be scaled up. 

Professor King said: “Previous breeding programmes like this would have taken up to ten years to transfer just a couple of segments. In four and a half years we’ve produced hundreds of introgressions - something the world has never seen before.” 

Both the new germplasm and the information generated by this project will be made freely available. That means plant breeders can use the germplasm to cross with their existing lines, while academics will be able to make use of it to understand the mechanistic basis of key traits in bread wheat.

Programme for Monday 11 April 2016

Venue – Wheat Research Centre, Sutton Bonington Campus, The University of Nottingham, LE12 5RD.

11.00 – 11.30   Tea/Coffee in Plant Sciences foyer
11.30 - 11.40    Welcome - Professor Dame Jessica Corner, The University                           of Nottingham Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Research
11.40 – 11.50    Dr Adam Staines, Head of Agriculture and Food Security                             BBSRC
11.50 – 12.20    Remit of the Centre - Dr Julie and Professor Ian King,                                 School of Biosciences, The University of Nottingham
12.20 – 12.25    Professor Perry Gustafson - introduction to Ms Jeanie                                 Borlaug Laube
12.25 – 12.35    Jeanie Borlaug Laube – Official opening
12.35 – 13.30    Lunch in Plant Sciences Foyer
13.30 - 15.00     Tours of glasshouses and research

— Ends —

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for three years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…


Story credits

More information is available from Professor Ian King, School of Biosciences on +44 (0) 115 951 6372,; or Dr Julie King, School of Bisociences on +44 (0) 115 951 6780, or Emma Lowry in the University of Nottingham Press Office on +44 (0) 115 8467156,

Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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