The Innovation of Super Wheat

23 May 2013

Interview with

Dr Phil Howell, National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Ginny Smith visited the Innovation Farm run by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Impington, Cambridgeshire to find out about a new strain of wheat they've developed using ancient plant strains.

Ginny - So, I've come to Innovation Farm to talk to Dr. Phil Howell about a special wheattype of wheat he's breeding. So, what exactly is it that you work on?

Phil - We're trying to move some of the genes from the wild ancestors of wheat into modern wheat varieties.

Ginny - And why is that important?

Phil - During the domestication of any crop, there is inevitably useful variation that's grown away as the farmers select what they want to take forwards. Wheat is a complex beast. It has three sets of chromosomes, it's called a hexaploid and we know that two of those sets came from one ancient parent and a third set came from a different ancient parent, and it's this third set that there's less variation in. So, that's what we're trying to tap into.

Ginny -   And why is wheat so important? Why have you focused on it?

Phil - It's the UK's most widely grown crop. So, it's grown on about 40% of the UK's arable land and it's in so many food stuffs. We're also moving into a situation where the world population is increasing all the time and there is all sorts of pressure on agricultural land. I mean, as you can see, if you look out the windows, some of our trial fields are being built on. So, this is pressure from housing developments even here in Cambridge. If there's less agricultural land available, we need to be getting as much as we possibly can out of the land.

Ginny - And why is less variation bad?

Phil - It means that there is just less raw material if you like for plant breeders to get their teeth into and one set of genes in wheat in particular there's little variation in modern varieties. So, we're trying to put some variation back in. That will then help commercial breeders to solve problems that we don't even know exist yet. So, it might be new diseases, it might be things caused by climate change. You can never tell what the future is going to bring.

Ginny - And how do you go about introducing this variation?

Phil - There's an international research place in Mexico called CIMMYT. So, we took some of their synthetic hexaploids and crossed them with UK varieties and it works so well, we're now actually making our own synthetic hexaploids here as well, but they're not quite as far advanced.

Ginny - So, how do you actually get to this synthetic wheat and what exactly do you mean by it?

Phil - By synthetic, I mean, it's not made out of plastic or anything. It's a living plant. How you make synthetic is you take a different form of wheat call durum wheat which nowadays, we make pasta from and you cross that with a species called wild goat grass and bring in variation from this third set of chromosomes.

Ginny - And when you say that you cross these varieties, what exactly do you mean? How do you go about doing that?

Phil -  So, when it starts to flower, we have to move the male parts, the anthers, but you don't remove the female parts of the stigma. You keep that there. So essentially, we're turning a flower that has male and female parts in to a female only flower. We then cover it with a clear cellophane bag to keep any stray pollen out and then we take an ear from what we're using as our male. So, in a normal cross, it would be another wheat variety, where we make synthetics this is the wild goat grass and we introduced the pollen and it trickles down. You can actually see it floating down like yellow powder, lands on the female parts and hopefully, fertilisation happens.

Ginny - Now, this sounds like quite an old-fashioned way of crossing things. Is there not more modern ways you can do this, genetically modifying things or something like that?

Phil - It does seem old-fashioned, but old-fashioned things can work very well. So, the cross itself is, as you say, it's the way plant breeders have been crossing for 100 years or so. The tissue culture is a bit more cutting-edge. So, if we let the seed develop by itself, because we've crossed two different species together, the pasta wheat and the goat grass, normally, the seed would just shrivel up. It doesn't have the food supply, the flour inside the seed, so that's why we have to open the seed up, remove the embryo, and give it some food from the petri dish.

Ginny - Okay, so we've now headed down to your lab and there's lots of big machines. You can hear the sort of humming in the background and I can see some petri dishes and microscopes, it looks like a properly scientific area over there.

Phil - Petri dishes, we can certainly have a look at.

Ginny - So, I can see some seeds on this petri dishes. They're a kind of reddish colour and some of them have little sproutty bits coming out of them. Some of these others, they look at bit more like you'd expect the wheat seed to look, sort of like unpopped popcorn. And again, some of those are sprouting. So, what's the difference between these two kinds of seed?

Phil - The ones which are in red, these are actually commercial variety and we're just - we call it pre-germinating. So, we're trying to get them so that they break dormancy and they germinate. Sometimes if it's old seed, you have to try a bit harder to get it to germinate and that's what we're doing here. The red colour is actually a seed treatment. So, it's a fungicide to stop any diseases on the surface of the seed, stopping it from growing properly.

Ginny - Okay and do they germinate quite happily in a petri dish? I would've thought that would be a very unnatural environment for a seed.

Phil - Yeah, you give them a bit of water and they will as you say, swell up and look like unpopped popcorn and then you'll see the shoot start to break through and the root start to break through. Again, some of the old seed, it can be a bit tricky to get it going. So, we have little tricks like if you grow them in these petri dishes and then you alternate. So, they spend a night in the fridge and the day out in the warm, the night in the fridge, the day out in the warm. Eventually, that can get them going.

Ginny - And what are the advantages of doing it this way versus something like genetic modification?

Phil -  GM is a very focused, targeted technology. So, you normally have a particular gene of interest that you want to transfer from one plant to another plant. Here, we're bringing the whole lot across. Some of it might be useful. Most of it will be absolutely rubbish. We look for what we want once we've made the cross.

Ginny - And have you found any benefits so far?

Phil - We've seen some interesting results suggesting that if you put much less fertiliser on these crops than conventional wheat varieties, the yield doesn't drop off as much as you expect. So again, that suggests that the root system is more active. They're better at scavenging the little nitrogen that you've added.

Ginny - Are there going to be any negative environmental connotations to this sort of thing. If goat grass is a weed, could we see wheat running rampage through our forests and fields, overtaking hedgerows and that sort of thing?

Phil - Becoming a super weed? I really hope not because it's not the goat grass itself that we're putting into the field and even if some of the goat grass characteristics are transferred into modern varieties, we're still doing selective breeding. We're not just moving everything forwards. We're taking hopefully, the best of both worlds.

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