Science Interviews


Sat, 11th Apr 2015

Mike Ambrose - Saving seeds

Mike Ambrose, John Innes Centre

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Kat - Feeding the world’s growing population is a big challenge, and it’s important that we take care of the varieties of crops that are grown as food. But at the same time, we also need find varieties that can withstand new challenges, such as pests and climate change. I spoke to Mike Ambrose, manager of the Germplasm Resources Unit at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which is basically a seed bank packed full of all kinds of crops, to find out how resources like this could help to keep food on the table in the future.

Mike - My role at the John Innes Centre is to manage the Germplasm Resources unit which is a seed bank in other words. These represent the collective agricultural history and research history of arable crops in the UK, primarily cereals and legumes. These are large collections of seed which has been amassed to underpin principally research and breeding. They do go back in time so we’ve got representatives of early crops from UK – wheat, barley and oats from different regions across the UK as well as other parts of the world.

Kat - Now, when I look at say, a field of wheat or a field of barley or something, it looks pretty much to me like any other field of barley. But presumably, there are differences in say, different species or strains of these crops and they're genetically different. How do you go about collecting and preserving some of that diversity?

Mike - Well, for cereal crops, it’s fortunate that they're mostly inbreeding. So, if you get hold of a variety, and you keep it from outcrossing, you can keep it as a genetically fixed line.

Kat - So, if you just grow it in one field and you harvest those and then plant them again, and keep going, you'll just get that particular genetic crop.

Mike - Yes, you'll get that crop. Now, a crop isn’t 100 per cent inbred. There's still a little bit of what they call residual variation there. But basically, it will conform to the description of that type. We can actually go back through some of the early descriptions – colour etchings of cereals from the late 1800s and match them against the same varieties that we have today and they're absolutely spot on.

Kat - So, I could be eating a loaf of bread made with exactly the same kind of wheat, genetically the same, as could’ve been grown 100 years ago.

Mike - Pretty much, yes.

Kat - What about some of the more wonderful things like the heritage vegetables? We hear all about this kind of strange vegetables that are coming out and turning up in our shops or in farmer’s markets. Are there similar things for cereal crops?

Mike - There are. They're not so generally well-known, but it’s exactly the same thing. people have maintained these old forms purely out of interest. In some cases certainly in the cereals, they had to earn their keep. So, when we talk about heritage material still being used, it’s for a purpose. So, you’ve got particular crops of barley or oats or even wheat that are grown for purposes. So for instance in Scotland, certain types of barley are well at better adapted for growing under the windy wet conditions there than recommended varieties today. In the UK, in south-western England and east of England, you got to think about all the thatching materials, all the straw that’s used. The long strawed wheats are the old fashion types that are grown. They're grown specifically by some farmers that have accessed them from our collections for their long straw to maintain the heritage of thatched buildings.

Kat - Say, you did decide that you wanted to take one of these stored seeds and get it going again, like “Yep! I think  we need this crop.” How much would you need and how long would it take to get that, say, so a number of farmers could be sowing it?

Mike - We only keep relatively small samples, given that we’ve got over 45,000 different lines. the amount of any one of them is relatively modest. But you can over 2 or 3 generations of multiplication build up to a reasonable amount of seeds. So, we can fast-track it there are ways if we really need to, if something really important is discovered in the line, it can be put through to 2 to 3 generations a year, depending on whether it’s a winter or spring type we can accelerate that process and get the seed multiplied up at a faster rate.

Kat - From a research perspective, how do you go about discovering what's in these seeds? What's useful in these different genetic lines that you’ve got?

Mike - There are different ways. You may be focusing on specific diseases. So, you might put it into infected soils or spray it with particular diseases to see whether it has any immunity. But you can also look at it genetically. So for instance, if you’ve got a particular disease-resistant gene that has been sequenced with the new technologies, you could look for variants in that sequence by just taking a piece of the leaf of DNA, extracting the DNA and searching for variants of it - that’s called EcoTILLING. That’s a very powerful and new technique. So for instance, if we have DNA resources of our collections, you can come along to it and probe for that allelic variation and within a few weeks, get an answer, which would’ve taken many years to establish by growing everything up and exposing it over its full cycle.

Kat - One of the hot topics at the moment is talking about things like food security and the changing climate and the environment. How do you see the role of what you guys do here in basically enabling us to have food for the future?

Mike - Well, the collections are incredibly important in that arena. These resources are the first port of call in many instances for researchers and breeders to look for those adaptive traits to cope with climate change and other stresses that are imminent and threatening.

Kat - Do you have a favourite in there? Do you have a favourite variety that you look at, “That is a nice barley”?”

Mike - Favourites, they come and go. There are. I mean, the collections are full of stories. Each individual line has its own story and it’s a question of which ones are current at the moment. One that’s playing out is a land race of barley, a UK barley and it’s called Chevalier which has been knocking around since the 1830s. When barley really began to become improved in the latter part of the 1800s, there was a sort of line drawn under the old material. It wasn’t well-adapted. It was consigned to the history books. But recently, there are researchers here that have been looking into these old forms that are well-adapted to growing in the UK. They may not have the disease resistance. Lo and behold! That particular line has two characteristics which have brought right into the focus. The first is, that it has some novel malting features – so in the malting process for beer. But also, is the fact that it has a new form of disease resistance to a disease called fusarium head blight which is increasingly a problem in the UK. So, that material has been fast-tracked. So, an old line is having a really renaissance.

Kat - It does sound like a fantastic resource that you’ve got with this seed bank. How can you get people to know about it? Is there any way that the public can maybe get hold of some of these seeds and try them out?

Mike - Well, we do put on growing demonstrations not just at John Innes but a few other events and I go and give talks. But we have over the last few years been supplying seed in a city school’s programmes. It’s easy for people to get hold of vegetable seeds from your garden centre, but how do you get hold of agricultural seeds? Not so easy. So, we put ourselves in the market place for providing samples of seeds for teachers to be able to grow out small plots of wheat or barley, or whatever else we have, so that the children get to see what the crop – what it looks like when it’s growing, to get to harvest it, to get to process it and to eat it in the end. The more people that understand these processes and the more that you use the collections, it’s for the better. They're there to be used.

Kat - That was Mike Ambrose from the John Innes Centre in Norwich.


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