HEALTHY Plants and Animals

4. Optimising oat varieties for end user requirements

Optimising oat varieties for end user requirements (Marshall)

IBERS has a long history of oat breeding and is continuing to develop varieties that meet the needs of end users. Oats fit well into UK arable systems. They are used as a break crop to reduce soil borne diseases in the following crop rotation, and are a valuable crop in their own right. In addition to developing varieties high in betaglucan, (which reduce the risk of coronary heart disease in people), IBERS scientists are also working on optimising oat varieties for animal feeds. The UK is highly reliant on imported animal feeds (largely soya from South America), and so developing new oat varieties as a source of home grown feed will lessen this problem. Socalled ‘naked oats’ are varieties where the oat husk is easily removed during threshing. These varieties have been bred for high protein and oil levels and are an ideal poultry feed because poultry cannot digest oat husks. A high fat content is also an advantage in supplementary feeds for ruminants; methane production in both sheep and cattle is reduced as the fat content of their diet is increased. However, in contrast to poultry, ruminants can partially digest oat husks, so the breeding target here is oats with low-lignin husks and high oil contents. We are working in conjunction with Senova and AHDB on feeding trials in which we measure methane production by ruminants fed on novel oat varieties. We are also using bench top fermenters that mimic the rumen to better understand the underlying physiology. Underpinning these developments is our improved knowledge of the molecular markers associated with the desirable feed quality traits in oats such as high oil content. Screening progeny for these molecular markers is a much faster process than conventional phenotyping approaches and will allow us to increase the speed at which new varieties become available for end users. Our work on oats is also benefiting from the imaging facilities in the National Plant Phenomics Centre, housed at IBERS. These allow us to make rapid and non-destructive measurements of desirable physical attributes such as drought tolerance and growth rate.

We are:

  • Increasing the rate at which new oat varieties can be developed by using molecular assisted breeding technologies.
  • Using non-destructive imaging techniques to acquire a detailed understanding of plant responses to stress.
  • Integrating work on underpinning plant genetics, plant breeding and rumen physiology to meet the needs of the animal feed industry.

For more information contact: Prof. Athole Marshall

5. Sequencing the red clover genome

Sequencing the red clover genome (Skøt)

Scientists at IBERS in collaboration with the Earlham Institute have sequenced and assembled the red clover genome. The high protein content of red clover makes it a useful species to include in grass-fed livestock agriculture. Because of their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, legumes, such as red clover, can also be used in crop rotations to boost soil fertility and reduce the need for application of industrially produced nitrogen fertilisers. How does the genome sequence help us? The sequence gives us a detailed map of all genes, and we can use this information to better understand the genetic basis of traits such as yield, disease resistance and nutritional properties. For example we have identified key clusters of genes that are associated with important nutritional traits such as fatty acid availability and protein breakdown in the rumen. Secondly, the genome provides a platform for identifying tens of thousands of the variations in sequence between individual plants. 5 Sequencing the red clover genome

That genetic variation is the raw material that plant breeders need and use to generate new combinations with better yield, disease resistance and digestibility for the ruminant livestock through crossing programmes. The wealth of detailed information about the genetic differences between individual plants can be used to make predictions about the performance of their progeny. When these predictions are sufficiently accurate, some of the time consuming phenotypic assessments can be eliminated. This will allow us to speed up the breeding process and mean that improved varieties will be available to UK farmers more quickly than would have been the case with conventional plant breeding approaches. IBERS has a long history of developing commercially successful forage crop varieties, improving both environmental performance and profitability in collaboration with industrial partner Germinal.

We are:

  • Using next-generation sequencing techniques to improve our understanding of key plant genomes, including red clover.
  • Incorporating this knowledge into our forage crop breeding programmes to accelerate progress in variety development.
  • Working with industry to bring new varieties to market.

For more information contact: Dr Leif Skøt

6. Training the next generation of plant breeders

Training the next generation of plant breeders in industry-relevant research skills (Thorogood)

IBERS combines almost a century of plant breeding expertise with its role as a University Institute. We work to ensure that our undergraduate and postgraduate courses meet the needs of students and also guarantee a steady supply of potential employees for plant breeding companies. The success of this approach is exemplified by a recent graduate, Lucy Slatter, who investigated the genetics of self-fertility in Lolium perenne in her undergraduate dissertation. After presenting the work at an international conference in Zurich, (the 20thGeneral Congress of EUCARPIA, the European Association for Research on Plant Breeding), she has gone on to a job at a German plant breeding company based in Cambridge whilst continuing her plant breeding studies at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Perennial ryegrass is self-incompatible; a single plant cannot reproduce with itself despite having both male and female reproductive organs. Outbreeding preserves genetic diversity in the population and harnessing this variation is a mainstay of crop improvement. We select parent plants with particular desirable properties and attempt to combine these properties through plant selection in subsequent generations. Self-incompatibility (SI) is useful to the plant in a genetic sense. However, the ability to create inbred parental populations (i.e. by making the plant self-fertile) would allow us to then cross these homozygous parental populations to generate F1 hybrid grasses in which the beneficial genetics of both parental populations are incorporated in a much more closely defined way. This would significantly improve both the speed and certainty of new variety creation and at the same time help us to understand the genetic basis of hybrid vigour (heterosis). Two key genetic loci have so far been identified that control SI in perennial ryegrass. Whilst the majority of varieties are self-incompatible, some plants are in fact self-fertile. Lucy’s dissertation investigated the genetics of these variants. She discovered an entirely new genetic locus that induces self-fertility, thereby improving our understanding of SI and our chances of being able to manipulate it in the future.

We are:

  • Identifying the genetic loci underpinning selfincompatibility in perennial ryegrass.
  • Manipulating self-incompatibility for creating F1 hybrid varieties.
  • Providing cutting-edge research opportunities for undergraduate students.
  • Creating the next generation of plant breeders with industry-relevant skills and experience.

For more information contact: Dr Danny Thorogood