'Designer' wheats are on their way

Farming News, May 10, 2001

WITHIN five to 10 years the average annual wheat yield increase from new varieties could more than double from one per cent extra a year to at least two per cent, through increased use of gene mapping and marker technology.  

According to breeder Monsanto PBIC, work at its Cambridge base will allow breeders to develop from the outset varieties combining high yields with improved grain quality and agronomic characteristics.  

'Designer' wheats will soon be under development to meet specific needs for current and future markets.  

Dr Xavier Delannay, Monsanto's international molecular breeding programme chief, says these first benefits will boost conventional breeding, with significant spin-off   benefits for growers.  

Developing marker technology involves detailed molecular studies of what makes wheat plants 'tick' and how individual genes interact. By mapping them, technologists can provide tools to tailor varieties to specific needs.

"The new technology will highlight which genes to use to design a variety," said Dr Delannay. "The key ones are those controlling yield, grain quality and disease resistance, with those affecting other agronomic characteristics also important.

"This means designing wheats to suit specific geographic areas, growing conditions and markets. A variety could be targeted at bread making, distilling, specialist starch production, or many other industrial uses. With a full set of tools, breeders could access a broader range of genetic variation than can be tackled at present.  

"They tend to stick to gene pools they know and are reluctant to look elsewhere for characteristics they need for fear of complicating programmes. The big international gene pools could be a treasure trove of genes that haven't so far been exploited in the appropriate combinations. It should be possible to make even greater use of genes from wild species."  

Monsanto PBIC's Dr Peter Jack said that the company's molecular experience in other crops, including corn and rice, was being adapted to help wheat breeding.  

"There may be some mechanisms common to all crops that contribute to major characteristics, such as yield, but genes that control yield are complex. In the past, the number of samples that could be analysed limited exploitation of DNA marker technology. Automation has greatly increased throughput, so projects that until recently seemed impossible are now feasible."

Using the technology involves plugging recently mapped genes into existing breeding   programmes  to design crops as required.

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