NEWS: NIAB ‘superwheat’ is finalist in national innovation award

13 Feb 2014

The National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s ‘superwheat’ research has been short-listed for the BBSRC’s 2014 Innovator of the Year award.

The competition recognises researchers who have taken their innovation beyond the lab to deliver social and economic benefits. NIAB has been singled out for its work on improving the genetic diversity of wheat through the development of resynthesised wheat, also called SHW, and its integration into commercial breeding programmes.

NIAB’s Director of Genetics and Breeding Professor Andy Greenland says: “We’re absolutely delighted to make the final list in the BBSRC’s 2014 Innovator of the Year award, recognising the team’s achievements in the research and development of the ‘superwheat’ and the subsequent publicity of the breakthrough to a wide range of audiences. Our work has tapped into the current recognition of the importance of translational science and agricultural research in ensuring food security.”The NIAB superwheat team

“Wheat arose from a rare prehistoric hybridisation between a wild grass and primitive wheat grown by early farmers. This introduced many important genes into the modern wheat crop which today provides 20% of the world’s food calories. NIAB’s innovation is to repeat this hybridisation using wild goatgrass and durum wheat to introduce genetic diversity from the wild, including new sources of yield improvement, drought tolerance, disease resistance and input use efficiency, and then recombine these re-synthesised genomes with UK varieties.”

Thousands of pre-breeding lines are tested in the field and the best are delivered to industry. This unexplored diversity and its integration into elite backgrounds is unique, with initial tests indicating it represents a step change in UK wheat yield potential. Early trials have recorded yields 30-40% above the elite parent.

“Even a 15% yield improvement above current varieties could translate to an additional income of £416 million/year for UK farmers and around ten-fold that amount for downstream end-users such as millers, bakers and the animal feed industry. Clearly, this work will directly benefit the entire wheat supply chain from field to plate,” explains Professor Greenland.

Field trial data from Rothamsted and Nottingham University also point at potential savings in greenhouse gas emissions, as these new lines can maintain much of their yield under significantly reduced nitrogen fertiliser inputs.Crossing goatgrass with durum wheat

The original pre-breeding work was funded by the BBSRC under their Crop Science Initiative, with additional industrial funding from three leading breeding companies, the HGCA and the NIAB Trust.

A BBSRC ‘Super Follow-On Fund’ award was subsequently granted in which the best of the original pre-breeding lines will be further tested and moved towards potential commercialisation and release as varieties on farm. This extension has considerable in-kind contributions from the three breeders involved in the project (KWS, Limagrain and RAGT), and any income arising from commercialisation will be shared to reflect this unique public/private breeding partnership.

NIAB’s work on developing its own SHWs, based upon wild goat-grass sources that have not been previously exploited, forms part of the BBSRC’s £7 million investment into public sector pre-breeding in wheat (

BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2014 finalists

Innovator of the Year is one of BBSRC’s Fostering Innovation competitions that aim to promote excellence amongst researchers, knowledge exchange practitioners, departments and institutions by recognising successful approaches to innovation and impact in the biosciences. The Innovator of the Year 2014 event takes place in London on 20 March 2014 when the winners will be announced.

Three finalists will compete in each of the three categories of ‘Commercial Innovator’, ‘Social Innovator’ and ‘Most Promising Innovator’ which are aimed at reflecting the breadth of the benefits delivered by BBSRC’s investment in UK bioscience. One of the category winners will then be chosen as the overall Innovator of the Year. The NIAB resynthesised wheat breeding programme is competing in the ‘Social Innovator’ category.

Winners in each category will receive a £15,000 award for them to support their research, training or other activities promoting economic or social impact. The overall winner will receive a further £15,000. More information about Innovator of the Year can be found at:

Commercial Innovator

  • Curtis Dobson, The University of Manchester – Serial innovations focussing on the treatment or detection of infectious agents on medical device surfaces
  • Neil Gibbs and Catherine O’Neill, The University of Manchester – Novel  approaches to safe skin healthcare - Curapel
  • Ross Houston and Steve Bishop, The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh – A genetic test for disease resistant Atlantic salmon

Social Innovator

  • Luke Alphey, The Pirbright Institute– Genetic control of pest insects (Oxitec Ltd)
  • Neil Bruce and team, University of York – Engineering plants for the remediation of explosives pollution
  • Andy Greenland and team, National Institute of Agricultural Botany – Re-synthesis of hexaploid genomes for wheat improvement

Most Promising Innovator

  • Che John Connon, University of Reading – Gel encapsulation as an alternative to cryopreservation for the storage and shipment of therapeutic cells
  • John Love and team, University of Exeter – Fourth generation biofuels: The production of retail-grade diesel by synthetic biology
  • Cathie Martin and Eugenio Butelli, John Innes Centre – Enhancement of bioactives in crops for comparative nutritional assays and nutritional improvement

Re-synthesised wheat

The original resythesised wheats (SHW) were generated at CIMMYT, the international wheat and maize improvement centre based in Mexico, which ran an extensive programme of SHW development in the 1980s. CIMMYT carries out a host of important wheat breeding research especially for the developing world.

The CIMMYT SHWs have already been successfully used in wheat breeding around the world, especially by breeders working in drought prone, lower yielding, extensive agriculture systems in China, Australia, Africa, the Indian sub-continent, and South/Central America.

NIAB’s work is the first systematic exploration of resythesised wheat in temperate, high-input cropping systems like the UK. When NIAB crossed the original CIMMYT SHWs with UK varieties the field trial yield, disease resistance and quality results were better than expected, even with reduced fertiliser levels.

NIAB is now developing its own resythesised wheats and crossing them into UK varieties using different goat-grass sources to the CIMMYT material to access different combinations of genes.