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Wheat plants growing on one 
	  of the John Innes Centre's trial plots at Home Farm.

Historic grain’s new yield

MICHAEL POLLITT, RURAL AFFAIRS EDITOR
Eastern Daily Press 06 August 2005

Inside a small, purpose-built computer-controlled storage unit on the Norwich Research Park, a “living” collection of historic varieties of wheat, barley, oats and peas plays a pivotal role in modern plant breeding. Incredibly, some are more than 300 years old and, indeed, one would have been recognised by Lord Nelson in his native Norfolk two centuries ago.

Today, the national cereal collection at the John Innes Centre is the largest and most widely respected in Britain and it plays a growing role - pardon the pun - in the development of wheat production not just in this country but across the world.

As Mike Ambrose, curator for the past 15 years and the man responsible for more than 9500 wheat varieties, says: “This is the largest publicly-available cereal collection in the UK.”

And the significance of that is profound. For, as Mike explains, this “living” seed museum is proving an invaluable for plant scientists, seed breeders and as a vital source of genetic material.

Indeed, its influence has already been felt on harvests around the world. Many varieties have left the carefully-controlled atmosphere of Colney's cool store to be repatriated in countries across Europe, including Ireland, and as far afield as Afghanistan.

But a key role for the collection remains closer to home. “We're getting requests from people interested in old varieties which can be grown with very low inputs and also at the same time from thatchers looking for the old varieties capable of producing very long straw,” says Mike.

“It is quite surprising because 25 or even 30 years ago, everyone was just concentrating on growing wheat for bigger and bigger yields. Now, there is real fascination in learning about some of the really old varieties.”

Mike is plainly a man who lives for his seeds. “I feel a real sense of responsibility because I'm in charge of a very important resource. It's a huge asset and I feel responsible for its continued development. Not just its management but raising awareness.”

Today Mike, who spent 12 years looking after the national collection of pisum (peas) before taking charge of the nation's seed store, grows varieties to replenish the viable seed stock including one type of wheat, which would have been recognised in Nelson's days - Percival's Blue Cone.

In a field at Bawburgh, near Norwich, it is one of dozens of old varieties which are being grown to demonstrate the difference between the modern high-yielding varieties and the oldest types, such as Chidham, which was found growing in a hedge in Sussex in 1789, and a local Norfolk variety, Browick, which was spotted in a field near Wymondham in 1844.

Mike, as you may already have gathered, is no ordinary museum curator. And with the greater appreciation of the importance of the grain as a raw genetic resource together with the huge strides made in DNA analysis has come more investigative studies.

“There is a lot of sleuth-work that goes on in the quieter period of the year,” says Mike. “One can spend time piecing the nature of the grain together and it is quite a jigsaw. It reveals certain aspects which will help bring it to life and then put it in a real-life context. It is going back and trying to fill in the gaps and build up as much of a detailed description of their use as we can.”

The evolution of scientific techniques has made it possible to examine and check all the plant characteristics very carefully, including the plant, spike and grain. “More recently,” explains Mike, “we have been able to take a sample from the DNA from a leaf and analyse that.”

The DNA approach has helped to identify potential duplicates and also allowed for more detailed examination look into wheat pedigrees. “We're slowly trying to sort them out,” says Mike. “It is only in the last 100 years where seed varieties have become more uniform.”

It is one of the more extraordinary events in human and, indeed, plant history that an estimated 10,000 years ago the Fertile Crescent - the ancient land of Babylon which is now modern-day Iraq - gave birth to the world's key cereal varieties. Barley, wheat and pisum all originated from this part of the Middle East.

Although wheat is probably one of the most important cereals in terms of world production, the JIC's barley collection includes some 10,500 types plus 3000 oats and 3300 peas. Alexander the Great took peas on his military expeditions and spread them further afield.

The history of seed collections doesn't go back quite as far, but rather owes a great debt to those Victorian enthusiasts who travelled the globe, trawling for seed stocks.

Today, there are historic seed stores around the world, with important collections in Russia, Germany and the United States. “There is very close co-operation and especially in Europe on seed collections,” says Mike. “It is fair to say that there is a general recognition that the stocks are held or maintained as a scientific resource to benefit the global community. There is a ready exchange of materials.”

Although the John Innes Centre's collection is not the oldest, it is highly regarded for the range of seeds and varieties stored within it.

A large number of them were the result of the efforts made by one enthusiast, AE Watkins, of the Plant Breeding Institute, who managed to involve staff at British consulates around the world. “Between 1929 and 1932,” says Mike, “a call was put out for staff to take samples of wheat crops and then return them to London.

“It produced the AE Watkins Collections of selected landraces (old varieties of cereals), which still comprise a key element of the genetic resource.”

In the 1960s, there was a real risk that the collection would be dumped as the drive for higher-yielding varieties moved into top gear. “One can understand that,” admits Mike. “With plant breeders looking to produce even higher-yielding cereal varieties, why keep the old varieties?”

Fortunately, the collection survived although an “out of sight, out of mind approach” must have helped. And, for a decade or two, it became an unfashionable cul-de-sac of science before coming into its own again when the John Innes Centre took responsibility a quarter of a century ago.

Now, with such historic collections proving an invaluable aid to research and academic communities, it is centre-stage again.

Storing cereal seed is easy but maintaining a “living” collection requires strict discipline. Around 150g (six ounces) of each wheat variety (roughly 10,000 seeds) are kept in packets in carefully controlled conditions, while seed is regularly grown to maintain viable stocks.

Typically, the aim is to plant the varieties every 10 to 15 years and roughly 1200 varieties are sown each year in a greenhouse.

With each grain producing around 30 grains from 100 seeds planted, it means there is more than enough to store. The plants are harvested by hand, and Mike and his colleagues also check the samples for uniformity and quality.

There is a broad rule of thumb. “The healthier the plant, the better the seed,” explains Mike. “We compare specimen ears to make sure at the end of the day before we chuck it out that we're confident we've got the right variety.”

It was a different story 200 years ago. In Nelson's bicentennial year, farmers would have been growing a wheat of the Rivet type.

“This is not the modern type of wheat,” says Mike. “Triticum turgidum does not produce a leavened bread. It was ideally suited to ship's biscuits - hard and dry.

“Until the end of the Napoleonic Wars and into the 1830s, this was the predominant type. Then, there were very marked social changes that occurred and bread wheat became more accessible to the population as a whole.

“So, there was a switch and people were wanting bread made with proper bread wheat. This leavened wheat gives a raised dough.”

Wheat varieties in the early 1800s were quite remarkable, often almost 6ft high. They were very low-yielding - 15cwt or three quarters of a tonne an acre. Today, any self-respecting farmer would sneer at a yield of less than three tonnes an acre, while four or even five tonnes of modern varieties hardly raise an eyebrow.

The average wheat yield at Morley Research Centre (now The Arable Group) in 1964 averaged around 22cwt and had topped three tonnes (70cwt) by the late 1990s.

Today, the collection is commanding more interest from potential users, ranging from organic farmers to thatchers. Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is interested because of the opportunity to grow marginal niche crops. They are looking to encourage organic farmers to grow crops under much lower input regimes.

Plant breeders are using this start-up material because it has adapted to grow under lower nutrient conditions. “Even today, we don't fully understand the genetics of that adaption,” admits Mike.

Some old wheats were grown with incredibly low inputs - often just 17 units of nitrogen fertiliser compared to 200 units a typical wheat grower will use to achieve high yields.

Those old varieties, such as Browick, were far taller and tolerated much poorer soils. Many of these varieties hadn't so much been bred as selected.

The principal of plant breeding, however, is not new. Assyrian sculptures dating back several thousand years show people crossing date palms with pollen.

Before modern plant breeding, it was difficult to get true samples of varieties. And, in the 1800s and into the early 20th century, there was an incredible proliferation of names. And, in those days, many wheats were “awned” - with long “bearded” or “hairy” spikelets normally associated with barley. Plant breeders managed to breed these out although one or two barley varieties retain the feature.

Modern plant breeding - once funded by the taxpayer through organisations including the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge - transformed the size, and appearance of wheat.

In the mid 1960s, breeders developed “dwarf” varieties, which were capable of much higher yields. By manipulating the so-called harvest index - reducing the height of straw, it produced more grain in the ears.

However, exceptionally “dwarf” varieties became unfashionable. They could not cope with drought, so slightly taller higher-yielding wheats are now more common.