NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has granted £7 million ($11.3 million) to fund a consortium that will mine the genes of wheat varieties in order to make the crop more sustainable in the face of an increasing global population and changing environments.
The consortium will include the John Innes Centre, the University of Bristol, the University of Nottingham, Rothamsted Research, and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), as well as collaborators in India, Australia, the US, France, and Mexico.
The research will identify genetic variants in ancient sources of wheat germplasm that could be used to improve modern UK wheat varieties.
Ian King, a professor of cereal genomics in the Department of Plant and Crop Sciences at the University of Nottingham, said that enhancing wheat and other crops will be important to meet demand from an increasing global population while using the same amount of land that is farmed today.
"One way for this to be achieved is through the production of new high-yielding plant varieties that are adapted to global warming and environmentally friendly farming practices that result in less pollution (e.g. reduced fertilizer input)," King explained in a statement.
The aim of the studies will be to learn about genetic factors that affect wheat yield, such as drought tolerance, plant shape and size, and resistance to pests and diseases. That genetic knowledge will then be used to produce new germplasm by crossing different wheat strains in order to improve the plants.
The data discovered during these studies will be used to start a new database of genetic markers that could be used for more precise breeding. The database and the seeds will be stored centrally in the UK and will be freely available to both academics and plant breeders.
"In collaboration with colleagues at Rothamsted Research, our research will screen a wide range of novel wheat genetic resources developed within the consortium in field experiments to identify lines with enhanced biomass and provide understanding of the biological basis of the key traits underlying genetic variation in biomass, e.g. light interception and photosynthetic efficiency," said University of Nottingham Professor John Foulkes.
Foulkes said this research could be used to develop high-yield wheat varieties that use less nitrogen fertilizer and contribute less greenhouse gases.
"This investment has the potential to make a real difference to people and farmers, whilst at the same time increasing our body of scientific knowledge," UK Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts added.
John Innes Centre Professor Graham Moore said that there is "an urgent need to improve yields of wheat," and said it has been estimated that over the coming 50 years the world will require as much wheat as has been produced in the last 10,000 years.