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Historic grain collections helps preserve future biodiversity

13 January 2011

One key to maintaining world food security is to preserve biodiversity in food crop species, as highlighted by a recently published report from the FAO on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources. BBSRC supports a number of cereal and plant collections which are central to the UK's contribution to preserving global plant genetic resources.

The JIC Germplasm Resources Unit are the largest collection in the UK (see 'Public cereal germplasm resources maintained JIC' below) and are the reference collections for wheat, oats and barley. They are recognised as international working collections and material is sent out for use in both research and plant breeding programmes, as well as for educational purposes.

In the mid 1970s working collections from research institutes across the UK were brought together into a single seed storage facility, based at the former Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, to support public sector research and breeding in small grain cereal crops. Their remit was extended to enable the inclusion of seed 'germplasm' including older reference collections from the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency (SASA), research groups and heritage organisations, together with extensive 'landrace' germplasm from expeditions mounted in the 1970s by UK universities and the British Army through Europe, Asia and Africa. In 1990, all of these collections were moved to a new facility at the John Innes Centre (JIC), where the active provision and receipt of materials from UK cereal breeders was maintained.

Mike Ambrose. Copyright: John Innes Centre.

Mike Ambrose. © John Innes Centre.

"The public collections hosted at JIC represent key resources and facilities of national importance and form an important component of the UK's contribution to global plant genetic resources conservation," says Mike Ambrose, Manager of the Germplasm Resources Unit (GRU) at JIC.

"We have a unique set up at the GRU where we are embedded within a working research environment with strong links to the UK, European and international breeding sector."

Encouraging collaboration

Embedding the collections within the JIC has helped to maintain close contact with the research community who remain the biggest user sector for the collections. This has assisted greatly in maintaining their relevance and utility to breeders, delivering genetic variation from exotic sources, through trait identification and the development of enhanced germplasm to feed into breeding programmes.

Over the years the cereal collections have been successfully screened for many traits leading to the identification of new sources of disease resistance to a range of diseases as well as tolerance to drought, salinity and aluminium.

Drought already represents the most common stress factor for the production of barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) in Mediterranean areas, and the risk from drought is expected to increase due to climate change. By screening the GRU's holdings of a wild relative, Horedum spontanuem, a Europe-wide consortium has identified germplasm accessions that show promising drought resistance. The 'Evaluation and Conservation of Barley Genetic Resources to Improve Their Accessibility to Breeders in Europe' programme (GENRES CT-98-104) also identified potential leaf rust resistance in accessions from the Galilee and Judaea regions of Israel.

Applying modern tools to seed 'museum'

The development of powerful genomics tools and molecular genotyping is also helping to unlock the potential of these collections.

"We have a unique set up at the GRU where we are embedded within a working research environment with strong links to the UK, European and international breeding sector."
Mike Ambrose, Manager of the Germplasm Resources Unit (GRU) at JIC

The Watkins collection of bread wheats was assembled in 1928. But, in the 1960s, there was a real risk that the collection would be dumped as the drive for higher-yielding varieties moved into top gear. "One can understand that," admits Ambrose. "With plant breeders looking to produce even higher-yielding cereal varieties, why keep the old varieties?"

More recently however, this historic collection has proven invaluable and researchers have identified a number of agronomic traits of interest as well as analysing the collection's genetic diversity. By comparing the collection's holdings with modern UK varieties, JIC researchers have identified novel variation in genes that respond to day length and control vernalisation (when seeds break from dormancy in the spring, following a period of cold). Breeders are participating in the joint evaluation of these resources as part of a collaborative partnership within the Wheat Genetic Improvement Network (WGIN, funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), underlining the plant breeding industry's interest in sourcing novel variation.

"The development of a pipeline from the application of these technologies into breeding programmes is at the heart of the Germplasm Resources Unit's operations," says Ambrose. "We act as a shop window to the wider diversity within our target crops. Through collaboration with scientists and breeders we are searching for key germplasm to address practical and urgent issues relating to sustaining and increasing yields in times of increasing environmental change and growing food demand.

"This is an exciting time for us as developments in biotechnology are helping us to understand and unlock the diversity in our collections, some of which we hope will translate into improving the crops of tomorrow."

Public cereal germplasm resources maintained JIC

The JIC Germplasm Resources Unit is the most authoritative cereal collections in the UK comprising 9,533 wheat, 10,841 barley and 2,640 oat accessions. The collections include cultivated material from all wheat growing regions of the world including extensive holdings of landraces and landrace selections.

Watkins Landrace Wheat Collection
Comprises some 1,200 selections of landrace wheats collected from 32 countries around the world in the late 1920s. These provides a unique snapshot of genetic diversity and geographic distribution prior to modern plant breeding and the green revolution and is actively being screened for novel allelic variation for UK wheat improvement.

Wheat Precise Genetic Stocks
A key international centre comprising around 660 characterised, specialist genetic stocks which have been accumulated over the last 80 years.

Triticeae Collection
A collection of around 1,350 accessions from diverse diploid, tetraploid and hexaploid wheat species as well as both wild and cultivated relatives.

The John Innes Centre hosts a number of other active public germplasm collections, supported by BBSRC and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). These include an international collection of peas and a large collection of wild barley. In addition to modern cultivars, the collections include heritage varieties and landrace forms from across the world as well as large holdings of their wild relatives. They also include many natural and induced variants and research lines. These resources form part of the Multilateral System of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Contact

Tracey Duncombe

tel: 01793 414695
fax: 01793 413382