$8m wheat breeding breakthrough

30 Mar, 2005 08:45 PM
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A NEW high-tech Australian approach to wheat breeding is set to significantly boost Australia's $8 billion-a-year wheat industry.

The world-leading molecular technology will rapidly improve Australian wheat grain - and with it the industry's productivity and global competitiveness.

Rapid adoption of the process will add substantial impetus to the industry's efforts to move wheat from a bulk commodity status into more profitable, specialist value-added streams.

The technology is being made available by Triticarte Pty Ltd, which will launch the revolutionary genome profiling service on the Australian market.

"This technology is way ahead of anything else being used or developed around the world at present. Its application will give Australia's wheat industry a major global advantage for years to come," Triticarte's professor Bill Rathmell said.

Triticarte is a joint-venture spin-off from the one-third Federal Government-funded Value Added Wheat Cooperative Research Centre (VAWCRC), which developed the technology over the past 10 years, and Diversity Arrays Technology (DArT). Professor Rathmell is also managing director of VAWCRC.

Triticarte's technology enables wheat breeders to accurately identify genetic traits.

This in turn allows them to select plants containing genes that promote advantageous characteristics, including higher yield and improved sprout tolerance, which is critical in Australian conditions.

This more versatile grain will also deliver qualities needed for the improvement of products such as noodles, biscuits, pasta or bread.

The research program was jointly funded by VAWCRC and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

The project is also receiving substantial industry support.

Active long term partners include Arnotts Biscuits and Allied Mills. The former has contributed nearly $3 million to the VAWCRC and is already using improved wheats from the research programs in its biscuits products.

Professor Rathmell said Triticarte expected to earn about $500,000 from Australian wheat breeders during the first full year of commercial service.

The Triticarte service also applies to barley, Australia's second most important crop, after wheat.

Professor Rathmell said Triticarte was confident of a rapid uptake by industry.

"They've already shown a great deal of support for the project," he said.

A recent economic evaluation conducted jointly with GRDC, Triticarte's largest equity holder, showed that the current program has a benefit:cost ratio of 87:1.

This compares with an average for molecular marker projects of less than 12:1.

The key to Triticarte's innovation is knowledge of the wheat and barley genomes, with many important diseases and quality genes having been accurately mapped by the research conducted by VAWCRC, GRDC and Triticarte.

According to professor Rathmell, the research project has progressively increased that knowledge more than 10-fold over the past 10 years.

But until the application of the Triticarte technology, it had been very difficult for wheat and barley breeders to make full use of this information.

"It was too expensive and too slow to be of real value to most breeders," Professor Rathmell said.

"For instance, a task that used to take four years can now be completed in no more than two days, while a profile of up to 500 molecular markers now costs breeders just $50."

Breeders make populations of plants by crossing parents that have desirable characteristics.

They then look in those populations of offspring for plants with promising combinations of parental traits.

At the same time they extract DNA from plants in those populations and send it to Triticarte.

Triticarte returns data to the breeder showing the genetic situation at each of several hundred positions in each plant's genetic make-up.

The breeder can then associate this genetic information with particular traits of interest and use the information in subsequent breeding by selecting desirable plants using genetic configurations as revealed by Triticarte.

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