Fast Facts

Bringing genes back from wild for rapid crop improvement

uwa-prof-wallace-cowling
UWA Professor Wallace Cowling

An international team of researchers from The University of Western Australia, University of New England, the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, Norway, and the Pig Research Centre, Denmark have developed a revolutionary plant breeding system which will enable breeders to access valuable genes that have been lost through modern breeding programs.

Modern breeding efforts to improve yield, disease resistance, and quality, are constrained by a low level of genetic diversity in breeding programs. Large genetic diversity exists in seeds of wild crops held in gene banks, not used in active breeding programs.

The plant breeding method captures valuable genes from wild crops and moves them back into the field by crossing the genetically diverse exotic lines with elite lines, creating evolving gene banks.

Professor Wallace Cowling from The UWA Institute of Agriculture who led the study said the population is then selected for improved economic index over many cycles of recombination and selection, while retaining the exotic genetic diversity for future discovery and exploitation.

“The team modelled genetic improvement in evolving gene banks with optimal contribution selection, which enabled us to increase the number and diversity of offspring selected for breeding,” Professor Cowling said.

“We also accelerated cycles of selection, with just two years per cycle compared with six to ten years in traditional crop breeding.”

Dr Rob Banks, Director of the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit at the University of New England where the modelling was conducted said the work was based on the animal model, and this is the first time this has been used in crop breeding with selfing in the pedigree.

“Our new rapid-cycle plant breeding method in evolving gene banks will have long-term benefits for all plant breeders, and could help to adapt and develop climate ready crops,” Dr Banks said.

Professor Cowling said the immediate challenge is to validate the results in commercial crops such as wheat, pulses and canola.

The team is seeking potential collaborations with plant breeders and breeding companies to validate the scheme.

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