John Innes Centre wheat genetics research has benefits
Prof Moore also used the concept of synteny to study an important gene called Ph1, which regulates reproduction in plants. Ph1 prevents wild wheat varieties breeding with elite wheats, making it difficult for breeders to introduce traits such as disease resistance to new elite lines. Research on this trait started in the 1950s, when PBI scientist Sir Ralph Riley recognised that Ph1 was preventing the crosses. Sir Ralph went on to use his knowledge to introduce resistance in wheat to the Yellow Rust fungus, which is a major problem for growers.
In a BBSRC-funded study which started in the 1980s, Prof Moore and colleagues found genetic sequences next to the Ph1 gene in a grass called Brachypodium, which has a small genome, and used synteny to find the same sequence in wheat. Building on this knowledge, they showed that okadaic acid could mimic the effect of deleting Ph1, allowing the cross of wild and elite wheats and transfer of important traits. Based on their work, BBSRC funded a wheat pre-breeding programme in 2012 for further advances using Prof Moore’s work.
Researchers at PBI and, later, the John Innes Centre also identified the Rht1 gene responsible for the so-called Green Revolution of the 1940s to 1970s. The expression of the Rht1 gene is responsible for reducing the height of wheat crops, meaning that the plant’s energy is used for growing wheat grain rather than stalk resulting in a higher grain yield.
PBI breeders used conventional breeding in the 1960s to develop new wheat lines showing the Rht characteristic which are now in use in UK wheat production and worth £75m to the economy each year.
Further work on the Rht1 gene was led by JIC scientist Professor Nick Harberd in the 1990s – he and colleagues successfully located an equivalent gene in the model grass species Arabidopsis and in maize. They discovered how the natural mutation in the gene had led to the appearance of the short stalks, and also identified nearby ‘marker’ genes which are easier for breeders to select for plants with the Rht1 trait.
John Innes Centre scientists have also been researching the genetics of flowering time, and how plants respond to environmental cues like day length. The research has taken place over the last 30 years, initially by Professor Colin Law and colleagues at PBI, leading on to studies by JIC scientist Dr David Laurie. Their understanding means plant breeders can control flowering time and develop new varieties which can adapt to climate change.