2018 training brings researchers to forefront of wheat breeding

For an early career scientist entering the field of wheat breeding, it’s an exciting, if sometimes daunting time. ‘There have been so many new discoveries and developments in wheat recently that is hard for any one person or even research group to keep up!’ Said Simon Griffiths, John Innes Centre.

The release of the wheat genome means we now understand wheat genetics to a point once thought impossible. Recent technology breakthroughs can half generation times for breeding programs, genetic pathways can browsed on smart phones and automated robots are recreating models of plants as they grow in the field. The aim of the Designing Future Wheat training week is to ensure the next generation of researchers are able to access these new technologies.

November 2018 saw the opening of the first Designing Future Wheat course on wheat genetics, hosted at the John Innes Centre. The week long course brought together junior breeders from 9 companies and wheat researchers from across the program to cover a broad range of topics ranging from physical field work to data management. This range of material was taught by researchers from 8 institutes across Designing Future Wheat.

‘The teachers on the course this year were from all of the UK institutions taking part in DFW so everyone involved got to hear about how these developments are being applied right now for wheat research, pre breeding, and breeding,’ said Dr Griffiths.

The week covered wheat development, new genomic resources for marker assisted breeding, high throughput phenotyping, grain structure and composition of starch traits as well as a visit to the industry plant breeder, Limagrain.

These skills for improving wheat are important as it is one of the most dominant staple crops in the world, covering the most grown land of any food crop and accounting for around 20% of total calories consumed by humans.

‘Wheat is a global crop, grown on every continent except Antarctica.’ Said Dr Griffiths, ‘The students this year reflected a good part of this range, with young academics and breeders attending from institutions in Poland, France, South Africa, Israel, USA, Ukraine and the UK.’

Practising crossing wild relatives of wheat with Nottingham University

As well as the scale of demand for wheat, new understanding around wheat genomic tools for identifying and introgressing traits have developed rapidly in recent years. For those new to the field, these advances are not always easy to keep up with.

‘The technology is moving so fast it’s sometimes daunting’ said Luzie Wingen of the John Innes Centre, ‘the course gives younger researchers a chance to catch up and meet institutes and companies.’

In addition to the skills training, the workshop offered the chance to build networks between individuals across wheat research and commercial breeding. One of the strengths of Designing Future Wheat is the community it has around the breeding sector and the workshop provided the participants access to actors across that network.

“The course provides an excellent insight into the pre-breeding activities conducted by world leading Crop Geneticists here in the UK.’ said Phil Taiby of Limagrain, ‘it not only delivers training in the technicalities of modern pre-breeding but also helps to strengthen the essential relationship between academic-lead research and commercial-based plant breeding.’

These networks are important as breeding new wheat varieties to raise productivity in requires a combined effort across disciplines. The varied topics of the course showcased this variety of expertise. This gave the opportunity for bioinformatitions try field based practical procedures and the chance for field researchers to learn new computational techniques. Similarly those based in research were able to meet with those in industry and vice versa.

Invited speaker Chris Burt of RAGT Seeds is an example of how industry breeding sectors are linked to academic discovery having completed a PhD at the John Innes Centre a few years before.

‘It was clear to me that there were a range of experiences in the students. This is good for helping understanding of the academic side from the breeding side and the breeding side from the academic side.’ said Chris, ‘as an early stage researcher I benefited enormously through having connections with the breeding industry and I think that Designing Future Wheat may help to give others the same opportunity.’

The combination provided the group with a wider understanding of the potential opportunities and challenges across disciplines. One computational researcher said, ‘we tried threshing wild wheat relatives and it was much harder that the domesticated lines. I knew that we need to work with wild wheat but it showed the difference in breeding and how difficult wild relatives can be to work with.’

We encouraged the participants to consider the possibilities created when you make a pipeline,’ said Fiona Leigh of NIAB, ‘starting with introgressing diversity from wheat progenitor species, through wheat pre-breeding to the creation of novel tools for the wheat community.’

Participants more familiar to one taught session would guide their peers and they in turn would be helped in other sessions they were less familiar with. As well as encouraging the group to work together, participants were able to experience the wider pipeline of modern breeding programs.

‘These experiences help people with linking the applied and the academic,’ said Luzie Wingen, ‘it motivates them to understand more of the pipeline and the genome.’

Perhaps due in part to these technology advancements the face of wheat breeding is showing signs of changing too.

‘When WISP first started, there were not enough young wheat breeders’ said Luzie, ‘now there are more and more.’

Raising production of high quality wheat despite changing climates is a challenge that will likely require all the tools available. Importantly also, it relies on people. The 2018 training course ensured not only that the next generation have these required skills, but that they are connected.

The Designing Future Wheat training course was delivered by researchers from the University of Bristol, The European Bioinformatics Institute, Earlham Institute, Germplasm Resources Unit, John Innes Centre, Limagrain, National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Nottingham University, Quadram Institute, RAGT Seeds and Rothamsted Research.

The next training course will take place in 2019. Updates will be posted on this website as more information becomes available.