EI Innovate 2020: Accelerating plant breeding

CHAP Research Assistant Dr Jemma Taylor attended the final day of EI Innovate 2020, hosted by the Earlham Institute. The day focused on the benefits of accelerating plant breeding with next generation genetics, genomics and epigenetics.

John Bloomer, an independent consultant to the agri-tech industry and non-executive director for CHAP, chaired proceedings for the third day of EI Innovate 2020. John introduced the topic, highlighting how critical plant breeding is to food security and climate change. Collaboration continues to be an important part of ensuring research is translated from the lab bench to the plant breeder and enabling this to happen more effectively was one of the aims of the meeting.

First to speak was Professor Anthony Hall from the EI, covering innovations in plant breeding.  EI has four national BBSRC capabilities: Genomics and Single Cell Analysis, Plant and Microbe DNA Foundry, Advanced Training and Research e-Infrastructure.  Anthony shared several examples of collaborative projects that used the capabilities to enhance crop breeding.  One was the 10+ wheat genome project, an international collaborative project sequencing 40 genomes of elite varieties of wheat to examine genome variation.  They discovered a huge amount of inversions, rearrangements, deletions and duplication within the wheat genome.  With this knowledge, the research can move forwards into breeding applications, such as understanding and potentially controlling recombination events.

Dr Mark Davey from BASF was next to speak.  His work involves looking at trait and gene discovery in wheat.  Bread wheat, which provides 20% of the global calorie and protein intake globally, has the lowest rate of yield increase each year compared to other major global crops.  Its large and complicated genome led  BASF to combine different technologies, big data and genomics to facilitate its work.  It has used mutant populations of wheat and the latest phenotyping technologies to identify differences in the genome responsible for traits observed in field or glasshouse.  This enables other techniques, such as gene editing, to be used for precision breeding. BASF also understands the value of collaboration and in addition to its internal programmes has joined the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium.

After a short time of Q&A, the meeting then split into breakout rooms for discussions on hybrid wheat, using machine learning in plant breeding and improving the transition of genetic diversity research into plant breeding.  John then brought the groups back together and invited feedback about the discussions in each group.  It was clear that public and private sector collaboration is key to progress within the plant breeding sector and that this needs to be done more and with greater intentionality.

In conclusion, this innovate day organised by the Earlham Institute showed there was both a need and a desire from both the public and private sectors to continue to collaborate effectively.  Some progress has already been made but the challenge continues, and we here at CHAP aim to be part of the solution.

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