NIAB Training Course Attracts European Students

1 May 2008

A unique NIAB training course on quantitative genetics and statistics attracted participants from as far a field as Switzerland, Madeira and Latvia.

The two week postgraduate level course, entitled “Quantitative Methods in Plant Breeding”, rapidly filled with plant breeders and students, and may be held again at their centre in Huntingdon Road, Cambridge to meet demand.

It focused on statistics, computation and data handling, population genetics, quantitative genetics, linkage analysis, association mapping and marker assisted selection and was led by statistical geneticist Dr Ian Mackay, who also has considerable experience as a commercial plant breeder. It is believed to be the first of its kind held in the UK.

Dr Mackay said the course, held between 7-18 April and limited to 20 participants, was designed for UK plant breeders, but he was delighted that news about it reached so many different organisations throughout Europe.

He said:

“There is an acknowledged lack of training in both traditional and modern methods using plant breeding. This is particularly the case in the numerical, quantitative and statistical methods which everyone hates at university, but which are making a come back in a big way. In order to make sense of the more extensive genetic and genomics data that are available now, you need to have a good understanding of these quantitative methods, which is why we decided to put on this course, and I’m delighted it attracted so much interest from so far afield.

“What might be unique about it is the breadth of coverage we offered. You will find courses in statistics, you will find courses in running statistical packages, or how to map traits in populations, but to get a course that covers such a wide breadth of quantitative methods, ranging from trial design and analysis to marker assisted selection is innovative.”

The participants described how valuable they had found the course, particularly learning about software which was available.

Ieva Berzina, from the State Priekuli Plant Breeding Institute in Lativa, works in a molecular markers laboratory where they have started to apply marker assisted selection for barley and potato, and will now be able to apply her new knowledge.

Nicolas Bakaher, from Philip Morris International in Switzerland, whose company is a leader in tobacco plant research, said he wanted to improve his knowledge of quantitative genetics and statistics, and said the course provided an opportunity to improve his knowledge of more powerful data analysis techniques and methods available.

Saemundur Sveinsson, from the Biology Institute, Iceland, has a special interest in basic genetic studies of wild Icelandic grass species that are related to wheat and has been making hybrids. He believes what he has learnt from the course will be of great use at a later date when the data is being analysed.

Gillian Covey, from KWS UK, said she had wanted to learn more about the software programmes available for analysing data and quantitative genetics. She works with wheat breeding in fields, as well as with the “crossing”, and believes she will now have a better understanding of the population sizes that are needed, as well as analysing results from the field which should make the breeding programme more efficient.

Plant breeder Jo Bowman, from Nickerson/Advanta, who works with oilseed rape, said he wanted to learn how statistics had developed over the years so he had a better understanding of information he is presented with which will enable him to do his job more effectively.

NIAB based Phd student Jon White, who assisted Dr Mackay on the course, said it had demonstrated that plant breeders need to have a broader knowledge of the tools they can use with their work.

He said:

“The future trend in plant breeding is to make increased use of these very sophisticated statistical techniques to maximise the chance that a plant breeding programme will produce winning varieties. Plant breeding is, to an extent, almost a process of gambling. All you can do is maximum your chance of success, you can never guarantee it, but this knowledge will give breeders the edge.

“Plant breeders are not just biologists or statistician, or even agronomists, but they are also administrators and organisers and a successful plant breeder must have a tremendous range of skills to make any sense out of what is an enormous logistical problem; they are dealing with thousands of different breeding lines and they must keep track of all of them and find the best.”

For further information please contact Dr Ian Mackay

Press enquiries can also be made to Ellee Seymour, 01353 648564 or 07939 811961