Breakthrough for ‘wild’ genes

Wheat breeders should have access to a wider pool of genetic material from which to breed in desirable traits such as disease resistance and drought tolerance, thanks to a scientific breakthrough at a Norfolk research institute.

Using traits from related wild grasses has previously been very difficult because of the complexity of the wheat genome, Chris Lamb, director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich told the Norfolk Farming Conference.

“Wheat has three sets of genetic information, or genomes, which inherently should make wheat genetically unstable.”

Stability was conferred by a gene complex, known as Ph1, which effectively prevented recombination of genes across the different genomes, he said.

“Genes in genome A can only recombine with genes from A, B with B, etc.

The good news is that it makes wheat genetically stable.

The bad news is it also makes it very hard to get desirable genes into modern wheat varieties.”

But now, following extensive research, a team at JIC led by Graham Moore believes it knows how to temporarily switch off the Ph1 genes allowing breeders to transfer in useful “wild” genes, without upsetting the genetic stability in the field.

“It will greatly increase the pool of genetic material breeders can use to improve varieties,” Prof Lamb said.

The biggest upside would be helping to improve traits like drought tolerance and cold hardiness, he suggested.

“But it is a breeding tool; it is not restricted to any one trait.

For example it could be applied to disease resistance or improving bread-making quality.”

Breeders should be able to start applying the research more or less straight away if clever fast-track methods of regulating the gene complex’s activity currently being investigated were successful.

“We should know in the next year or so if they are.”

The first varieties utilising the new techniques should come through the pipeline in 7-10 years’ time, he estimated.

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