NIAB’s Agricultural Crop Characterisation (ACC) group have expertise in UK-grown agricultural crops, this includes cereals, herbage, pulses and oilseeds. The group use the physical appearance of plants to characterise/identify a variety. These skills are applied in two key areas: Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability testing (DUS) and seed certification. Both activities are conducted on behalf of the Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA).
ACC conduct DUS tests on self-pollinating species, specifically wheat, barley and oats using visual assessments of phenotypic characteristics and direct comparisons between varieties. This contrasts with the statistical analysis of data from measured characteristics and visual assessments used to determine the DUS status of the cross-pollinated crops including winter oilseed rape, sugar beet, field beans and fodder kale. Data is collected by experienced evaluators, measured by hand or by image analysis using an in-house program. An important part of the DUS test is the assessment of uniformity which is the detection of off-types (plants that have a different physical appearance to others in the sample). The characteristics assessed during the tests are internationally agreed via UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants) an intergovernmental organisation. These characteristics are listed to give a description of the variety.
A similar set of skills are used during a crop inspection, to examine varietal identity and purity, as those used during a DUS test. The visual characteristics of the plants in a seed crop are compared to the variety description to check identity. Off-types are identified and counted to check purity. The team are industry experts and provide training for new and existing crop inspectors throughout the year. Training is also provided to industry groups on request.
Although much of the work carried out by ACC is statutory on behalf of the Government, the group also contribute to research and laboratory service delivery. Using the skills in characterisation on plants or seed, the team can assist with resolving farmer or seed producer’s varietal identity issues. NIAB’s crop research teams have benefitted from the available phenotyping expertise in various projects to help understand the genetics behind the traits.