What we want from a cereal variety changes continually as new markets open and growing conditions evolve.
High yield was the most important target for the barley breeder; then, for a time, quality took priority. Although yield is now back up the agenda, it must be combined with good disease resistance to keep input costs down, says Robbie Waugh of the SCRI.
But even the spectrum of diseases is changing. Ramularia, for example, fairly uncommon in the south of England when the project began, is now an increasing threat and the focus of recent genetic research.
Keeping up with the vagaries of the market place should become easier, thanks to a new LINK project that is developing laboratory-based diagnostics to predict good traits to exploit in breeding programmes. Testing old and new varieties, Prof Waugh and his team have identified no fewer than 4600 markers pinpointing where specific genes have their effect.
“No longer will it be necessary to physically identify plants in trials that, for example, stand well in strong winds, before entering them for National List trials,” he says. “We will know, from the version of the genetic marker they have, what sort of characteristics they will possess, be it good standing power or something else.”
The molecular approach is likely to benefit both breeders and growers by accelerating the process of selecting and trialling promising lines. Growers will have access to better varieties suited to specific end uses in half the time it would have taken, says Prof Waugh.
Also, traits such as good malting quality were not possible to predict by eye, so this project will revolutionise the design of breeding strategies. It will enable multiple crossing schedules, where more than two parent lines can be exploited at once to produce a single line with all the desirable characteristics.
Inevitably, there will be a period of four to six years for variety registration, but as much as five years could be saved from first selection to market, says Prof Waugh.
He believes the levy contribution to this work – a mere £160,000 plus £15,000 in kind of the total £1.56m – is money well spent. Improving the economic efficiency of barley by genetic means will increase its sustainability.
“This fast-tracking will help if, in future, we need varieties that can yield well under intense pressure from a specific disease or in low nitrogen situations,” he says. “For example, if limits are imposed on nitrogen fertiliser use, breeders can immediately cross lines which can scavenge well for soil nitrogen.”
That may involve what are called heritage varieties, originating from more than 100 years ago, before the advent of nitrogen fertiliser.
The project team has used yield and other data records from National and Recommended List trials, collected over 20 years, so has a powerful data source on the performance as well as the distinctiveness, uniformity and stability of varieties. The involvement of commercial breeders, providing a wide range of plant material and sharing results, has enhanced the outcome.
“We’ve already exceeded our expectations of this work and we have some time left to collect more data,” says Prof Waugh. “During the past year, we have identified the second of the two major genes responsible for determining whether barley is two-rowed or six-rowed. This work is very exciting for the distilling industry, particularly here in Scotland. Domestic demand for whisky is down slightly because of the recession, but the export market remains buoyant.”
Incorporating desirable traits for the barley feed sector will also be advantageous to growers, he adds, and the project should enhance the Recommended List for growers across the country, and the world.
Project no. 3043: To genetically fingerprint all barley varieties, past and current, to pinpoint desirable traits; BRI, BBSRC, Calibre Control International, Coors Brewers, KWS (UK), Masstock-Secobra, LS Plant Breeding, Maltsters Association of Great Britain, Mylnefield Research Services, NIAB, Nickersons Seeds, Scottish Government, SCRI, Svalöf Weibull, Scotch Whisky Research Institute, Syngenta Seeds, University of Birmingham, and DEFRA under a Sustainable Arable LINK Programme; from October 2005 to April 2010.
Barley is an important UK crop; £2.8bn export value for whisky alone in 2007
Opportunity to use molecular techniques to deliver improved barley varieties adapted to UK agronomic conditions and focused on needs of end users
Improving Recommended List data to benefit plant breeders and growers
Interim reports for project available on the HGCA website.
It is good to hear that the desirable traits of stalwarts such as Golden Promise and Triumph have been genetically mapped and, along with thousands of others, are now much more easily traceable. This should herald a new era in plant breeding, with growers having quicker access to better varieties suited to end users.