Spotlight on future of wheat breeding

14 Mar, 2018 04:00 AM
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GENE manipulation and development was a major talking point for the first day of the Grains Research and Development Corporation Grains Research Update, Perth last week, as the future of grain biology develops.

Guest speakers on the topic included Colorado State University, United States, bio agricultural sciences and pest management assistant professor Dr Todd Gaines, Australian Grain Technologies chief executive officer and head of breeding Dr Haydn Kuchel and GRDC Genetics and Enabling Technologies business group general manager, Dr Nicole Jensen.

Genetically modifying grain is not accepted in all market places, which poses a threat to wheat modifications.

“We know that GM traits have been quite widely applied to crops such as corn, cotton, canola are generally accepted and the market acceptance of these is of course is highly variable around the world,” Dr Gaines said.

“It’s important that those traits are accepted before they go into the market and GM traits have not been applied in wheat due to market acceptance.”

Dr Gaines is currently working with the Charles Sturt University wheat breeding program to develop new herbicide resistant traits in wheat, as well as the wheat functional genomics program, to develop gene editing approaches to wheat.

He said there were a lot of great wheat breeding programs around the world working to apply traditional and newer techniques to improve yield, but he said to remember that gene editing is a controlled way to make a mutation and mutations underlie all the genetic diversity that we see in life.

The topic of his speech was Gene Editing and Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) in particular.

“DNA is basically a code of four different letters and those four letters instruct a cell on how to make a protein,” he said.

CRISPR, although discovered close to 30 years ago, has become a major player in gene mutations over the past six years.

The idea of CRISPR is that the virus, or chemicals in a farming scene, will be rejected by the immune system of a plant through remembering the virus that first infected it, much like the human immune system.

“The virus will infect a bacterial cell and inject the viral DNA, this will cause the disease but the bacterial cell will keep a fragment of that,” Dr Gaines said.

“Then it keeps that as a genetic memory for the future, over time several of these will build up and that’s why it is a repeated array and each of these small guides are specific to the virus that infects it.

“If they again encounter the same virus, the virus injects its DNA, that would normally cause the disease to the bacteria, however the immune system is activated so this nucleus turns on and goes along with the guide from the DNA that was present, which will go to the virus and direct it to be destroyed.”

Dr Kuchel pushed the idea that there were four levers that a plant breeder had at their disposal to improve rates of genetic grain.

These four levers are - increasing the size of the program, increasing their genetic diversity, increasing their accuracy of trait selection and decreasing the time it takes to recycle breeding lines.

The technology to grow and breed seeds is progressing with Genomic selection being adopted by many breeding programs right now.

“Genomic selection allows us to look for all the traits at once, really early in the breeding program which will shorten the time it takes us to release a variety,” Dr Kuchel said.

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