Major advances have been made in wheat production
New paper on wheat discusses importance of academic and industrial collaboration
By closely integrated working the UK has put itself in the best possible position to deliver the required future yields and hence make a significant contribution to global food security.
By closely integrated working the UK has put itself in the best possible position to deliver the required future yields and hence make a significant contribution to global food security. The academics will do what they do best, i.e. speculate and develop the appropriate tools to get alien and exotic wheat lines to the point whereby they are of interest to the breeders. The breeders can then do what they do best - incorporate the adapted and novel lines into their various breeding pipelines without undue risk to their existing activities.
This paper is based on a presentation made to the RASE Presidents Seminar & Awards Ceremony, February 2012, by Professor Keith Edwards, University of Bristol.
We in the UK are often accused of being good inventors, but poor exploiters. In the case of wheat breeding this is simply not true; the UK community has been responsible for inventing and exploiting numerous tools and technologies which have all had a significant effect on UK wheat production. For instance, since the early 70's UK wheat breeders have been highly successful at developing wheat varieties more suited to the needs of UK millers and bakers with the result that they now meet around 80% of UK flour requirements compared to just 40%, 40 years ago. Furthermore, this improved quality has not been achieved at the expense of yield, as since 1948 on farm yields have increased from about 2.8 tons per acre to about 8 tons per acre as of 2008.
Despite these major advances, significant challenges remain as it has been suggested that in the next 18 years, to cope with population increase and changes in diet, UK breeders will need to increase yield by 40-50% compared to the predicted 13% or so. How is this challenge to be met? Research carried out by NIAB suggests that most of the recent yield increase has been achieved by plant breeding and hence it is probably the case that near future yield increases will also be driven by plant breeding. However, wheat breeding is time consuming and relatively expensive with many risks and uncertainties; if breeders take too many chances, the consequences for the companies concerned could be dire and do not forget that the returns are considerably less than, for instance, might be expected in the pharmaceutical industry.
The question relevant to today's presentation is how can academics help UK wheat breeders achieve the large increases in yield? The answer lies in the fact that academics have the "luxury" that they can speculate without the risk of going bust, they can also take the long term view and they are very good at generating and/or testing basic tools and datasets. For example, it would have been impossible for any one UK-based wheat breeder to have generated the 5x wheat genome sequence, celebrated today. This sequence has been generated thanks to the foresight of the BBSRC and the cutting edge technology applied by researchers at Liverpool University, the John Innes Centre and Bristol University. This sequence will be the basis of the strategy used to increase yields in the near future, but to do this we need methods, to use the sequence, to screen large numbers of wheat varieties for those with high yields. Here again, the UK has been highly successful in generating the genotyping technologies required. For instance, the UK based company KBioscience has developed a high throughput genotyping platform called KASPar, which has been developed further by Bristol University to accommodate complex wheat sequences so that they can be used directly by the commercial breeders. These technologies are 2 right now being used by the breeders to screen hundreds of thousands of lines compared to the few hundred that were possible just 12-18 months ago.
In the UK we should consider ourselves to be very fortunate; wheat research and breeding is now at its most vibrant since the early 70's, and while the future is still uncertain, the UK science and breeding communities are taking the steps to build on these current strengths to deliver on the early promises. As an example, via the involvement of the whole wheat community, the BBSRC funded pre-breeding wheat Institute strategic programme (WISP), the academics will do what they do best, i.e. speculate and develop the appropriates tools that allow the use of alien and exotic wheat lines to the point whereby they are of interest to the breeders, so that the breeders can do what they do best and incorporated the adapted and novel lines into their various breeding pipelines without undue risk to their existing activities.
By working together in this highly integrated way, the UK has put itself in the best possible position to deliver the required future yields and hence make a significant contribution to global food security.
The work being carried out to increase UK wheat yields includes the following organisations:
- Universities of Bristol, Liverpool and Nottingham.
- John Innes Centre
- Rothamsted Research
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Date: 5 March 2012