Farmers Weekly 25 February 2000 (Arable Focus Supplement)

By Charles Abel

BIOTECHNOLOGY rather than genetic modification is the key to improving wheat varieties, says Monsanto. Although GM techniques may develop some traits, most will stem from conventional breeding backed by sophisticated biotech tools.

Biotech to aid conventional wheat breeding is already attracting 10 to 20 times more effort than the genetic transformation of the crop, says US-based Tom Crosbie, Monsanto's global head of plant breeding.

"Genetic transformation is just one particular wrench in the biotechnology tool box. We have lots of other tools to accelerate the development of new wheat varieties," he says.

Unlike some crops, most of the genetic material needed to create better wheats is already available in existing varieties and close wild relatives. The trick is to move desired traits into new varieties more rapidly and more accurately.

That is where biotech helps. Genetic transformation can only be used to introduce one segment of novel genetic material to a variety at a time, but biotech tools can be used to enhance a host of existing traits. "It's a numbers game and ultimately non-transformation biotech offers the greatest potential."

Monsanto now has the best wheat breeding material in the world Mr Crosbie claims.

Biotech methods such as gene mapping and molecular markers will transform conventional breeding, effectively turning the lights on where breeders previously worked in the dark, Mr Crosbie adds.

"Aligning 20 segments of desired genetic material using conventional breeding would take a one-in-a-trillion chance. Using molecular markers we can achieve it in three cycles."

Some wheat varieties entering UK national list trials benefited from tagging. In future, mapping and tagging could help improve yield factors and resistance to BYDV and yellow rust.

But GM techniques could still have a role, he says. The protracted flowering period for hybrid wheats renders them particularly susceptible to fusarium, resistance for which has already been introduced into Canadian spring wheat using GM. GM could be the key to successful hybrid wheats.

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