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Genes from a historic collection of wheat seed could help farmers use less fertiliser – saving money and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, say scientists.... How heritage wheat genes could create new varieties

Genes from a historic collection of wheat seed could help farmers use less fertiliser – saving money and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, say scientists.

It follows a decade-long study of the A.E. Watkins Landrace Collection of local wheat varieties dating back to the 1920s and stored within the Germplasm Resources Unit at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

No longer grown anywhere in the world, at least 60% of the genetic diversity found in the Watkins collection doesn’t appear in modern wheat – creating an opportunity to create new varieties with additional beneficial traits.

Key traits already found in this untapped diversity include nitrogen use efficiency, slug resistance and resilience against disease, said John Innes scientific group leader Simon Griffiths.

“There are genes which will enable plant breeders to increase the efficiency of nitrogen use in wheat. If we can get these into modern varieties that farmers can grow, they will need to apply less fertiliser, saving money and reducing emissions.”

The discovery was made during cross-institutional collaboration led by Dr Griffiths and Professor Shifeng Cheng, of the Agricultural Genomics Institute at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) in Shenzhen.

Better understanding

The work was underpinned by scientists at Rothamsted Research, who worked as a phenotyping hub to add understanding of the qualities and characteristics of the wheat, to connect the crop to the genetic sequence.

The team built a special map to show the genomic variation within the wheat. The landrace-cultivar comparison revealed that modern wheat varieties contain only 40% of the genetic diversity found in the Watkins Collection, said Dr Griffiths.

“This missing 60% discovered in this study is full of beneficial genes that we need to feed people sustainably. Over the last ten thousand years we’ve tended to select for traits which increase yield and improve disease resistance.”

Dr Griffiths added: “We’ve found that the Watkins landraces are packed full of useful variation which is simply absent in modern wheat, and it is imperative to deploy this into modern breeding.

Exciting discovery

“What’s exciting is that genes and traits are already being discovered using the data and tools developed over the past decade.” The goal now is to breed these beneficial traits back into modern varieties.

Working together, scientists at the John Innes Centre and in Shenzhen discovered that globally, wheat varieties originate from central and western Europe, with just two of the seven ancestral Watkins groups used in modern plant breeding.

The team also discovered hundreds of Watkins-unique haplotypes that can confer superior traits in modern wheats, informing breeders to know what accessions carry what useful genetic loci or alleles in their breeding programmes.

This diversity set was then crossed and back crossed them into modern wheat to make a collection of 12,000 lines of wheat. It paves the way for lost traits to be bred into new varieties for the first time in 100 years.

What is the Watkins Wheat Collection?

The A.E. Watkins collection comprises some 1,000 landrace or heritage bread wheat varieties gathered by the botanist Arthur Watkins in the 1920s and 1930s.

Including samples of locally adapted seed from 32 countries across Europe, Asia and North Africa, it is the most comprehensive collection of historic wheat varieties anywhere in the world.

The collection provides a snapshot of the diversity of cultivated wheat before the advent of modern, systematic plant breeding. It shows how the genetic variation is dispersed in clusters, or ancestral groups, around the world.

There is a rich genetic, geographic and phenotypic diversity within the collection. Based on genetic variation data, a core set of 119 lines was selected for more in-depth studies. This set is called the Watkins diversity panel.

For the last 100 years, the collection has been stored, preserved, and developed, and is found in the John Innes Centre’s Germplasm Resource Unit on the Norwich Research Park where is expertly cared for the benefit of future generation.