£7M for public wheat pre-breeding programme announced

21 Feb 2011

NIAB is part of a consortium of UK research groups which has secured a £7m research grant to increase the diversity of traits available in wheat through a major new public sector pre-breeding programme.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has today announced a £7 million grant to a consortium of researchers to increase the diversity of traits available in wheat via a comprehensive pre-breeding programme - the first of its kind in the UK in over 20 years. This project will be important to ensure the sustainability of wheat production in the UK and beyond at a time when we are facing a growing global population and changing environment.

The various available genetic backgrounds for a particular species are collectively referred to as germplasm. This project will identify new and useful genetic variation from ancient sources of wheat germplasm to accelerate the genetic improvement of modern UK wheat for the benefit of UK farming. Through free and open international collaboration, including the coordination of similar initiatives currently being planned across the world, the resources and knowledge generated in this project will contribute to global food security.

Professor Graham Moore, the John Innes Centre, who leads the consortium said "There is an urgent need to improve yields of wheat; it is estimated that in the next 50 years we will need to harvest as much wheat as has been produced since the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago!"

The research will be carried out at the John Innes Centre, the University of Bristol, NIAB, The University of Nottingham, and Rothamsted Research and aims to underpin and enhance wheat breeding activities in the UK and beyond.

The main thrust of the research will be to understand the genetics behind factors affecting wheat yield such as drought tolerance, plant shape and size, and resistance to pests and diseases. And then with this understanding, cross different strains of wheat to produce the germplasm required for breeding. They will also generate a database of genetic markers, which can be used for so-called precision breeding.

The new germplasm generated in this project will be exploited by breeders for crossing with their elite lines to develop new varieties for use by farmers. All the information generated in the programme will be stored in a central database, and seed stored centrally in the UK, both being freely available to both academics and breeders alike.

Members of the breeding industry have been consulted from the conception of the project to ensure that the germplasm developed is useful for commercial breeding programmes.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: "Food security and sustainability are amongst the biggest challenges facing the world today, especially as the population continues to grow. I am delighted that for the first time in over 20 years UK scientists will be leading on such an important area of research. This investment has the potential to make a real difference to people and farmers, whilst at the same time increasing our body of scientific knowledge."

Dr Celia Caulcott, Director of Innovation and Skills, BBSRC said "We are delighted that this group of researchers has considered at the earliest point how to ensure that opportunities are immediately taken to translate their work into products that have both social and economic impact in the UK. Having the lines of communication firmly established at this stage offers a great vehicle for exchange of knowledge, ideas and technology as this project progresses."

Key members of the research consortium are:

  • Professor Graham Moore, John Innes Centre (lead)
  • Dr Simon Griffiths, John Innes Centre
  • Professor Keith Edwards, University of Bristol
  • Professor John Foulkes, The University of Nottingham
  • Professor Andy Greenland, NIAB
  • Professor Ian King, The University of Nottingham
  • Professor Peter Shewry, Rothamsted Research


Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive, BBSRC said "This is a tremendously exciting project for BBSRC and the UK as a whole. We have world-class expertise in wheat research and as our most important staple food, this work will be essential for future food security in the UK."

BBSRC contributes to Global Food Security - a multi-agency programme bringing together the research interests of the Research Councils, Executive Agencies and Government Departments.