Increasing yields and making water and nitrogen use more efficient in cereals are important research priorities for Nottingham University, which wants to link basic and applied research more closely.

“We want farmers to be able to apply our basic research findings in the field,” the university’s Rumiana Ray told Farmers Weekly.

One project the university is leading involves crossing a large-eared spring wheat from Mexico with a UK winter wheat Rialto with the aim of increasing yields.

Research used to produce HGCA’s wheat growth guide suggests that wheat yields are limited by their ear size. Removing that limitation should mean increased yields.

So the researchers are trying to identify the genes involved in controlling ear size with the aim of backcrossing them into UK adapted wheat to produce varieties with large ears, Dr Ray said.

Root, rather than ear, structure is the target of research for the university’s Centre for Plant Integrative Biology. The Centre uses a model plant, Arabidopsis, to find the genes that control root growth and nutrient and water uptake to produce the perfect root system, Dr Ray said.

The first stage of the project had been to find the genes that controlled adventitious root development in the top layers of soil to help improve nutrient uptake and plant anchorage, she said. Researchers were also looking at increasing lateral roots to increase nutrient uptake.

“We have candidate genes now, which are being studied in barley and rice.”. The full genetic DNA make-up of rice has been sequenced, which makes it easier to manipulate genetically.

“The research will clearly allow plants to be more efficient at extracting nutrients and water,” her colleague Shravani Basu added. “One of the keys in the future as climate changes will be to improve crops’ drought tolerance.”

A third project was looking at being able to reduce N requirements in wheat while maintaining yields. “We are investigating stay-green traits, which may be linked to increased yield,” Dr Ray said. “We are looking at the genetic make up of varieties because some seem to utilise N more efficiently.”

By identifying which genes controlled those characteristics the researchers hoped to back-cross the traits into new varieties, she said.

Eyespot yield losses

W-type eyespot produced more yield loss than R-type, a HGCA-funded project that Nottingham University was involved with had found, Dr Ray said.

“We found that the W-type caused more lodging, while R-type more whiteheads. Usually yield losses are due to lodging – W-type eyespot produced about 1t/ha more yield loss than R-type.”

Lodging caused by eyespot could only be controlled by effective fungicides, not growth regulators, she added. “We tested Moddus (trinexapac-methyl) and there was no difference.”

But it did, surprisingly, have an effect on whitehead numbers, she said. One hypothesis was that Moddus might slow down the disease by modifying stem wall components, and making it more difficult for the eyespot to penetrate, leaving the plant able to transport water and nutrients for longer.