Five top research projects that could change arable farmer’s lives

Despite budget cuts and funding scarcity, cutting edge arable research is continuing to take place at world-class institutes across the UK. Louise Impey looks at five projects that could bring significant developments to growers

1. Feeding beans to fish – The James Hutton Institute

This innovative new project, worth £212,000 to the James Hutton Institute, is part of a larger four-year £2.6m collaborative research effort co-funded by the Technology Strategy Board and led by the salmon feed company EWOS.

The aim is to improve faba beans as a potential food source for salmon, pigs and poultry – so helping to relieve worldwide pressures on soya production and an over-reliance on imported soya in the UK.

In the first phase, processes that separate bean flour into two fractions will be used. Of these, one fraction will be high in protein and suitable for fish diets, while the other will be low in protein and high in starch, giving it potential for pig and poultry diets.

Initial results have been so encouraging that the two main fish food manufacturers are both supporting the research.

“By improving both products for those markets, we will be able to reduce the levels of imported soya and fishmeal that they currently rely on,” says Gavin Ramsay of the James Hutton Institute.

The benefits of feeding beans to fish are multiple, he adds. “Salmon are very efficient converters of protein to meat, much more so than other animals, and they don’t thrive on soya.

“What’s more, the fishmeal traditionally used in salmon diets can’t keep pace with the demand for salmon. That’s why home-grown vegetable protein sources are needed as a replacement.”

For growers, including more beans in their rotations brings soil fertility benefits and reduces the need for nitrogen fertilisers. “It would also help them overcome grass weed challenges and meet biodiversity targets,” he remarks.

In addition, it raises the possibility of growing beans on contract for aquaculture, as well as the breeding of new bean varieties which, due to lower levels of anti-nutritional factors, are better suited to this purpose, says Dr Ramsay.

2. Pre-wheat breeding – The John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre is just one of the beneficiaries of a £7m grant from the BBSRC to increase the diversity of traits available in wheat.

A comprehensive pre-breeding programme – the first of its kind in over 20 years – is already under way, aiming to guarantee the sustainability of wheat production against the background of a growing global population and changing environment.

The project is identifying new and useful genetic variation from ancient sources of wheat germplasm, to accelerate the genetic improvement of modern wheat varieties.

Graham Moore of the John Innes Centre, who leads the consortium of researchers involved, stresses the urgency of the need to increase yields.

“In the next 50 years, we will need to harvest as much wheat as has been produced since the beginning of agriculture, some 10,000 years ago. This project shows that the UK is committed to food security.”

As well as the John Innes Centre, the work will be carried out at the University of Bristol, NIAB TAG, the University of Nottingham and Rothamsted Research. The main emphasis is to understand the genetics behind factors affecting yields, such as drought tolerance, plant shape and resistance to pests and diseases.

“Once completed, we will be crossing different strains of wheat to produce the required germplasm. We are also generating a database of genetic markers, for use in precision breeding.”

The good news for growers is that both the new germplasm and the information generated by this project will be made freely available. That means plant breeders can use the germplasm to cross with their existing lines, while academics will be able to make use of it to increase their knowledge.

This kind of research makes it possible to introduce life changing developments, stresses Prof Moore. “Making crosses with wild relatives of wheat could allow us to bring in some very useful resistance traits, as well as others.

3. Producing ethanol from plant waste – University of Nottingham

One of six projects being run by the national BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre, the University of Nottingham’s work on producing bioethanol from plant waste has been up and running for the last two years.

Some £7m is going into the work, which will continue until September 2014, with the involvement of industrial and academic partners. Known as lignocellulosic conversion, it involves releasing sugars from cell walls, optimising fermentation and meeting sustainability targets.

The first stage is the development of a yeast capable of breaking down plant cell walls, so that agricultural waste products such as straw, husks and green vegetable tops, can be used in the production of biofuels.

“What are often described as waste products, or inedible parts of a crop, can be put to good use,” comments Katherine Smart, professor of brewing science, who is leading the team. “The challenge is to break down the toughest part of the plant, unlock the sugars, and find an efficient way of converting these into ethanol.”

The government’s commitment to replace fossil fuels with more environmentally friendly and renewable alternatives is a strong driver, she notes.

From the farmers point of view, these second generation biofuels do not compete with food, as they rely on different types of feedstock, points out her colleague Paul Wilson.

“They use co-products. So there’s no conflict between fuel and food, nor do they involve growing energy crops.”

To date, new yeasts have been discovered, he reveals. “But the big challenge is still the pre-hydrolysis stage, as breaking down cell walls is very energy intensive. The sugars in straw are very tightly bound in.”

4. Resistance mechanisms in Myzus persicae – Rothamsted Research

The discovery of a very highly resistant strain of the peach-potato aphid (Myzus persicae) to neonicotinoids in southern Europe is the latest finding from a five-year project under way at Rothamsted Research.

Funded by BBSRC and with support from Syngenta, the Rothamsted team involved made the early discovery as part of wider work on understanding resistance mechanisms in the aphid.

Chris Bass explains that the mutation involved gives the pest 500-fold resistance to the neonicotinoids.

“That’s in stark contrast to the 40-fold resistance which we already knew about and which means that the insecticides still work in the field. This is a new dimension.”

Together with his colleagues, Martin Williamson, Lin Field, Ian Denholm, Steve Foster and Miriel Puinean, Dr Bass has found that resistance in Myzus persicae is associated with an increase in the number of copies of a P450 gene in the pest.

“Resistant aphids carry around 18 copies of the gene, rather than the two copies found in susceptible aphids. We believe this allows them to rapidly breakdown the insecticides.”

Currently, the highly resistant strain is restricted to southern Europe. “It’s given us an early warning and alerted us to what might happen here in the UK. Growers can carry on spraying for the time being – we will issue advice and alerts as required.”

The Rothamsted Research team has developed a diagnostic test which allows individual aphids to be tested. “We’re doing it routinely for all UK aphid collections.”

The next three years will be spent monitoring the distribution and frequency of resistance, as well as the effect of it on the target site.

5. Resistance to multiple pathogens in sugar beet – Broom’s Barn

A collaborative LINK project being undertaken at Broom’s Barn hopes to reduce the sugar beet grower’s reliance on fungicides and insecticides.

Worth £850,000 over three years, the project started in June 2010 and is building on previous germplasm work, with the aim of introducing novel forms of genetic resistance to a wide range of pathogens.

Mark Stevens of Broom’s Barn explains that modern sugar beet varieties are susceptible to a wide range of pests and diseases, due to their limited genetic resistance.

“New sources of resistance are needed urgently. At the moment, growers have to use fungicides and insecticides, some of which are beginning to lose their efficacy.”

For this reason, understanding the genetic basis of broad spectrum resistance is a priority, he stresses.

“In this work, we’ve harnessed genetic diversity, from wild and cultivated sugar beet germplasm, and identified a region on a particular chromosome which gives wide-ranging resistance. We are hoping to be able to find ways to introduce this into elite varieties.”

Early findings have confirmed that there are useful sources of resistance out there, he adds. “That’s very important for the future of sugar beet growing, especially when you consider the situation with Myzus persicae and its resistance to current insecticides.”

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