Plant breeders have achieved
great variety developments
in recent years. But can they
maintain the flow of new
material? Charles Abel
visited one of Europes most
modern breeding centres
to find out
EACH year plant breeders collect millions of £s from growers through royalties on certified and farm-saved seed. At Rilland in the south of Holland, Advanta Seeds has just invested £4.1m of such funds in a new state-of-the-art research and development centre.
The aim is to speed varietal improvement. But unlike many plant breeders genetic modification is not the main goal. Indeed conventional breeding accounts for 80% of Advantas r&d budget, with biotechnology and GM work taking just 10% each.
Maintaining a strong base of conventional varieties for marketing now and developing a fast, efficient process for introducing novel genes as they become available from more GM-oriented companies in future is the goal.
"Our germplasm is very strong and we have very efficient transformation and selection processes," says Bram van der Have of Advanta UK. That will be attractive to companies wanting to get new gene discoveries onto the market fast, he believes.
Several Advanta oilseed rape lines have already had herbicide tolerance introduced and are already ready to market subject to EU approval.
Spending at Rilland will underpin that work. One-quarter of the budget went on 4ha (10 acres) of glasshouses, including 450 for isolation and a 1200sq m government licensed complex for growing genetically modified crops.
The GM facility provides a sterile, insect-free environment, which can be sealed against pollen release. All water is recovered and cleaned and all biomass is dried and packed in sealed containers for incineration. Regular government inspections check regulations are being adhered to.
A further one-third of the spend went on eight phytotrons – specialist growth rooms which allow light, temperature and humidity levels to be controlled to accelerate plant development, facilitate disease studies and aid the propagation of up to 90,000 parent lines of sugar beet.
The rest of the spending went on laboratories and offices, including specialist isolated work stations for biotech work which need permits to operate.
The main crops being developed at Rilland are sugar beet, oilseed rape and forage maize. Grass, sunflower and cereal work is based at other European centres. Some of the first fruits from Rilland are detailed in the panels.
But will the investment pay? Advanta believes the new facilities will make it more efficient, so the pace of variety developments can be maintained while r&d spending is reduced.
"We currently spend 14% of turnover on r&d. We would like to get much closer to 7% over the next 10 years," says Mr van der Have. "Developments like these at Rilland will probably allow us to get down to 10% without compromising variety development." *
Total resistance to rhizomania is the goal of one of the biggest research efforts at Rilland. And it is a goal the team expects to achieve and have on offer to commercial farmers within ten years.
Existing rhizomania programmes are using known sources of resistance from the US variety Holly and the Italian variety Rizor. But those only confer partial resistance, explains Advantas worldwide senior beet breeder Klaas van der Woude. "As Advanta we are looking to develop our own unique source of resistance from wild beet. We believe this offers the best prospect for the future."
Biotechnology means resistance genes can be identified in wild relatives of sugar beet and transferred into conventional varieties using genetic modification. "We already have several genes that look particularly promising."
There is also scope to look at the rhizomania virus and check its genetic make-up and then use that knowledge to construct entirely novel resistance genes in the laboratory, he says.
Biotechnology could then be used to stack different genes into a single variety, making the most of a host of anti-rhizo material in one commercial line. Such a line could be in official trials by 2006 and available commercially by 2010, Mr van der Woude suggests.
Bigger beet seed
Plump beet seed grow the biggest seedlings fastest. So new work at Advantas Rilland research centre is looking for genetic material that codes for larger seed size in a bid to improve seedling vigour. Some progress has already been made thanks to sophisticated equipment for analysing the size of tens of thousands of seeds. Varieties which produce inherently larger seed are now just around the corner. "Seed costs money, especially with the new chemistry that is available, so growers dont want to sow seed that is not going to germinate," says Mr van der Have. "They want one seed, one plant. This work aims to help them achieve that more consistently."
Hybrid seed check
Advanta makes impressive claims for its new F1 hybrid rape variety Triangle, including significantly easier seed production than existing true hybrid Pronto. But there is a danger that infertile seed could be set or seed produced from a cross with non-parent neighbouring crops.
That would hit the productivity of F1 Triangle, so checks need to be made, says Advanta UKs Bram van der Have. "We want every seed in the bag to be fertile hybrid seed, delivering all the benefits associated with being an F1 hybrid."
Getting that confirmed between seed harvest in July and sowing in August demanded the appliance of science. Using molecular marker technology developed at Rilland by William de Graauw a six-day test has been devised.
"We sow the seed, produce seedlings and then use a leaf segment for DNA analysis to check that the seed is truly F1 hybrid Triangle," says Mr de Graauw.
"This will give growers the assurance before purchase that they are buying fully fertile F1 hybrid seed," adds Mr van der Have.
• 14% of turnover invested in r&d.
• £4.1m invested at Rilland.
• 80% conventional breeding work, 10% biotech, 10% GM.
• Strong conventional varieties goal, to serve as background for new genes from other companies.