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Diversity Genomics

Contact : Dr Alison Bentley

The Diversity Genomics Group aims to understand the sequence variation that exists at the DNA level and how this variation is distributed in crop genomes. We are particularly interested in the mechanisms and processes that allowed wild plants to be domesticated into crop plants, and the subsequent effect that domestication had on gene diversity in these crops.

By studying genetic diversity, we can identify variation that can be used to ‘tag’ a trait. Currently, we are investigating genes controlling flowering time in response to day length (photoperiod) and temperature (vernalization), starch biosysnthesis genes as well as ear morphology in cereal species. The development of genetic ‘tags’ may then be used to track the inheritance of a particular trait in a breeding program in the Genetics and Breeding team.

We can also begin to ‘measure’ the pieces of chromosomes that are inherited during crossing (known as ‘linkage disequilibrium’). This is important as large genetic regions physically linked to an agronomically important gene can be dragged along with the target gene during breeding. Working with the Scottish Crop Research Institute (UK) and Oregon State University (USA) we are investigating the extent of this genetic ‘drag’ in modern crop varieties and their wild ancestors. Once determined, this should enable the Genetics and Breeding team to introduce greater genetic diversity to these physically linked genetic regions.

Sequence diversity only accounts for one aspect of heritable variation and for many traits, notably tolerance to environmental stresses, the level of gene expression is also likely to be of great importance. If changes in gene expression underlie many evolutionary changes in phenotype, then identifying the genetic variants that regulate gene expression is a significant and important endeavour. In collaboration with IRRI, ICARDA and University of Udine, we are investigating the regulation of gene expression in barley and rice for a number of genes so that we may link gene diversity, gene expression and phenotype.

The Diversity Genomics Group was created by Prof Wayne Powell, NIAB’s previous director and CEO. Prof. Powell’s contribution to NIAB’s research has been significantly important and is maintained today through close collaboration.