NIAB ‘superwheat’ is finalist in national innovation award

The National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s ‘superwheat’ research has been short-listed for the BBSRC’s 2014 Innovator of the Year award.

The competition recognises researchers who have taken their innovation beyond the lab to deliver social and economic benefits. NIAB has been singled out for its work on improving the genetic diversity of wheat through the development of resynthesised wheat, also called SHW, and its integration into commercial breeding programmes.

NIAB’s Director of Genetics and Breeding Professor Andy Greenland says: “We’re absolutely delighted to make the final list in the BBSRC’s 2014 Innovator of the Year award, recognising the team’s achievements in the research and development of the ‘superwheat’ and the subsequent publicity of this breakthrough to a wide range of audiences. Our work has tapped into the current recognition of the importance of translational science and agricultural research in ensuring food security.

“Wheat arose from a rare prehistoric hybridisation between a wild grass and primitive wheat grown by early farmers. This introduced many important genes into the modern wheat crop which today provides 20% of the world’s food calories. NIAB’s innovation is to repeat this hybridisation using wild goatgrass and durum wheat to introduce genetic diversity from the wild, including new sources of yield improvement, drought tolerance, disease resistance and input use efficiency, and then recombine these re-synthesised genomes with UK varieties.”

Thousands of pre-breeding lines are tested in the field and the best are delivered to industry. This unexplored diversity and its integration into elite backgrounds is unique, with initial tests indicating it represents a step change in UK wheat yield potential. Early trials have recorded yields 30-40% above the elite parent.

“Even a 15% yield improvement above current varieties could translate to an additional income of £416 million/year for UK farmers and around ten-fold that amount for downstream end-users such as millers, bakers and the animal feed industry. Clearly, this work will directly benefit the entire wheat supply chain from field to plate,” explains Professor Greenland.

Field trial data from Rothamsted and Nottingham University also point at potential savings in greenhouse gas emissions, as these new lines can maintain much of their yield under significantly reduced nitrogen fertiliser inputs.

The original pre-breeding work was funded by the BBSRC under their Crop Science Initiative, with additional industrial funding from three leading breeding companies, the HGCA and the NIAB Trust.

A BBSRC ‘Super Follow-On Fund’ award was subsequently granted in which the best of the original pre-breeding lines will be further tested and moved towards potential commercialisation and release as varieties on farm. This extension has considerable in-kind contributions from the three breeders involved in the project (KWS, Limagrain and RAGT), and any income arising from commercialisation will be shared to reflect this unique public/private breeding partnership.

NIAB’s work on developing its own SHWs, based upon wild goat-grass sources that have not been previously exploited, forms part of the BBSRC’s £7 million investment into public sector pre-breeding in wheat.

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