Friday, 25 January 2013

Nuffield Study Tour - John Innes Centre

My Nuffield adventure has finally begun, and what an adventure it will be if the first trip is anything to go by!  My first visit was to the John Innes Centre on the outskirts of Norwich; a 4 hour, 180 mile drive through the snow to get there for a meeting on Monday 21st January.  The trip was going well until the A11 from Thetford which was in blizzard conditions, following the two grey lines of the preceding vehicle etched into the snow bound carriageway.  Accommodation was at the Cringleford travelodge; very economical, and actually not a bad as I feared!
My meeting was with Dr Simon Griffiths who heads up the team investigating the genes involved in plant heading and plant height.  This is all part of the National Wheat Improvement Strategy Program (WISP) along with teams working at University of Bristol and Nottingham, Rothamsted and NIAB.  Wheat breeding is currently working on about a 1%/year yield increase at the moment and it really needs to be at 2%.  The team is looking at crossing Paragon spring wheat with varieties form the Watkins Landrace collection.  This collection was gathered in the 1930's by A.E Watkins and totals 1150 different varieties from all over the old Colonial Empire (great foresight!)  The collection has been grouped up to a smaller group of 120, and currently 7 of these are being investigated.  These have a wide genetic span for example they have heights of between 55cm and 150cm, and ear emergence of between 77 and 109 days. There is therefore a lot of genetic material that might help us increase our yields or develop varieties that will grow in different climates.
On the left is Simon Orford, Senior Research Assistant (who cycled to work in the snow), who is working as part of the Griffiths (Dr Simon Griffith on the right) group on mapping genes in the WISP project.  The idea is to identify genes in the plants that have specific traits.  The team uses Paragon crossed with the Watkins collection so that they can effectively grow two crops per year speeding up the genetic turn around.  Different traits are observed in the many different crosses.  
There is a gene map for Avalon x Cadenza which is nearly complete, so the genes identified here are mapped against this almost known genome.  In the green houses there were hundreds of pots all with different crosses growing in small pots, enough to sustain the plants.  Yield is not important so one tiller is all that is required to abstract the genes from the seed to add to the map.  This is done in a lab above the green house and then those results sent off to be statistically analysed by Luzie Wingen and her team.
Identifying the genes that contribute to height and flowering times are very important.  With global climate change, one thing that will not change, around the world, is daylight hours.  If a country that previously couldn't grow wheat because it's too cold may now be able to grow wheat with a shorter growing cycle i.e through the shorter summer.  This technology could also be utilised by warmer climate countries when possible later drought stops grain fill. I can also see a use in the UK, getting crops to harvest earlier, should spread harvesting dates and therefore labour and machinery and it could help build resilience to the system when wetter summers seem to be a more regular occurrence.  This can also help in rotational decisions i.e, growing Oilseed rape after wheat.
I have to say a huge thanks to Simon, Simon and Luzie for looking after me and taking time out of their busy schedule to help me in my studies.

No comments: