£2.2m quest beings at Nottingham Uni to improve wheat

23rd Nov 2012

The world’s leading experts in crop cytogenetics at the University of Nottingham have been awarded £2.2m to head an international study into the vast and untapped reservoir of genetic variation in wild varieties of wheat. The aim is to pinpoint the genetic lines in wild wheat that are essential to increase yield, improve disease resistance and enhance tolerance to heat and drought.

Over the next five years Professor Ian King and Dr Julie King in The University of Nottingham’s School of Biosciences will head one of 11 new research projects in a unique £16m global initiative which will develop ways to improve the sustainability of vital food crops in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The projects aim to develop staple crops better able to resist pests or thrive in harsh environmental conditions.

The grants have been awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) programme, a joint multi-national initiative of BBSRC and the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), together with (through a grant awarded to BBSRC) the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

in a quest that will harness bioscience to improve food security in developing countries.

Food security is a major issue with over one billion people across the world already undernourished and the global population forecast to reach nine billion by 2050. These new research projects are expected to increase sustainable crop yields for farmers and their local communities within the next five to 10 years and the knowledge and skills developed as part of these projects will be beneficial for crop production globally.

Professor King’s area of expertise is in the branch of genetics concerned with the study of the structure and function of the cell. He said: “The challenge is to meet the world’s growing demand for wheat by introducing new varieties that can tolerate various environmental stresses including drought, poor quality soil and disease. The transfer of genetic variation involves the normal sexual hybridization of wheat with one of its distant relatives to form a hybrid. By repeatedly crossing this hybrid back to the wheat parent it is possible to isolate lines which are essentially wheat but which also carry beneficial genes from the distant relative.

“In 2011, as part of the BBSRC £7m UK global food security programme, we were awarded funding to transfer genetic variation into wheat from related species that would lead to the development of superior high yielding varieties. However, for the full potential of this work to be realised it is essential to further identify the number and location of genes that control specific target traits. Relevant chromosomes from the wild wheat will then be incorporated into field trials across India to see how they grow and ultimately to develop superior wheat varieties specifically suited to India to meet growing food demand.

In order to undertake this critical work Professor and Dr King, Dr Martin Broadley, Dr John Foulkes, Dr Erik Murchie, Professor Malcolm Bennett, Dr Scott Young from The University of Nottingham together with collaborators at the University of Sydney and in India at the Directorate of Wheat Research (DWR), and the Agharkar Research Institute (ARI) have received funding of £2.2m to screen the lines being produced for a range of traits including tolerance to heat, drought (including water use efficiency), acid and alkaline soils and salt; resistance to disease; increased photosynthetic capacity/biomass production and nitrogen use efficiency.

As a result genes from related species that confer disease resistance, have increased yield and are resistant to environmental change will be identified and initially directly incorporated into wheat breeding programmes in India at DWR and at the ARI and then made available to breeders throughout the world.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “One billion people currently go to bed hungry every night. By 2050 there will be another two billion mouths to feed. And experts predict the world will need to be able to grow 70 per cent more food. The UK’s world class bioscience sector is dedicating vital knowledge and expertise to tackling this global problem. This investment will bring together experts at 14 British Universities and Institutes who will work with famers in Africa and Asia to develop crops that are resistant to disease, pests and drought. Farmers need these innovations to protect their own livelihoods and the health of their communities.”

Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, said: “This global collaboration will build on the UK’s world leading position in bioscience and will benefit millions of people through improving food security in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It will help us share knowledge and forge closer links with the international research community, whilst improving skills and creating jobs in the UK.”

Lynne Featherstone, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, said: “Staple crops are essential to millions of farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, both for food and income. All too often, environmental conditions and pests cause serious crop failure, with devastating consequences for individual farmers, their families and their communities.

“Producing crops better able to grow in harsh conditions will not only tackle malnutrition, but also increase the chances for families to earn an income in order to afford education and health care, which is why DFID is providing funding to this potentially life-saving initiative.”

Sam Dryden, Director of Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,commented: “Many small farmers in the developing world cannot grow enough food to eat, let alone sell. Innovation in agriculture is vital to resolve this and we hope these projects will sustainably improve agricultural productivity, build skills and resources in developing countries, and ultimately help farming families build better lives.”

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: “Providing safe, affordable and nutritious food for everyone is one of the greatest challenges we face. This ground-breaking international partnership, of funders and scientists, will ensure that cutting-edge, fundamental bioscience is combined with vital local knowledge to develop sustainable, affordable solutions to increase crop yields and improve global food security.”

The new initiative is being coordinated by BBSRC. The £16m is made up of £3m from BBSRC, £5m from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (through a grant to BBSRC) and £7m from DFID. A further £1m has been provided by the DBT of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology for projects involving India.

Each project includes at least one partner from the UK and one from a developing nation. This approach, used by BBSRC and DFID in previous programmes, aims to build scientific capacity in developing countries, with the aim of developing research teams and projects that tackle other local scientific challenges.

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