How do we feed a growing population in a changing climate? Introducing new Group Leader Dr Sanu Arora

Every minute the world loses 23 hectares of arable land, yet every day there are 160,000 more mouths to feed.

We take for granted an abundance of affordable produce year-round, but it comes at high cost to wildlife and soil due to high-intensity agricultural practices.

As such, we must secure and increase yields in a sustainable way if we are to supply enough food to feed the world. But, how do we feed a growing population in a changing climate?

One potential part of the solution is to develop resilient crop varieties. This of course raises another question; how can we achieve this increased resilience in crops?

New John Innes Centre Group Leader Dr Sanu Arora is working on just that, so we asked her what her group will be doing?

“The focus of my research lab is to explore the natural diversity of the Pisum (pea) species for environmental resilience.

Pea is an important place to start because the demand for pea protein is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years, but that is at odds with pea’s highly volatile yields.

There are many factors causing this yield volatility, such as biotic and abiotic stresses and sub-par agronomic potential. My group will work towards understanding the genetic basis underlying these stresses, with the objective of achieving yield stability.

We’ll start by looking for genetic sources of resistance to devastating diseases of pea (root rots, powdery and downy mildews) against which the current control strategies are not particularly effective.

Wild pea relatives and landraces are more resilient to changing environment because of their inherent diversity; this is in contrast to the modern crop varieties which went through a genetic bottleneck during domestication followed by intensive breeding.

Before being given the opportunity to start my own group on a ‘Ben Gill Translational Fellowship’ funded by the John Innes Foundation, I was a Postdoctoral Scientist in the Dr Brande Wulff lab. While there, I developed a new method, dubbed AgRenSeq, to tap into the genetic diversity of crop landraces and wild relatives for disease resistance. This method combines association genetics with resistance gene enrichment sequencing on a genetically diverse panel.

I demonstrated the efficiency of AgRenSeq by cloning four stem rust resistance genes from a diversity panel of Aegilops tauschii, the D genome progenitor of bread wheat. I’ll continue this project within my new group, helping make it a smooth transition.

Subsequently, this approach has been adapted to other crop diversity panels, including Watkins wheat landrace collection and now the John Innes Centre’s own Pisum collection.

Before joining the John Innes Centre, I studied for my my PhD at the Punjab Agricultural University in India. My PhD project explored the genetic diversity present in Ae. tauschii for agronomic and nutritional traits. It was during my PhD that I first realised the enormous potential of the wild wheat relatives in wheat enhancement as well as the huge challenges in the way of tapping that potential.

Growing up in Punjab, India, I closely witnessed the transformative potential of science in agriculture as my region developed into the bread-basket of the country because of the “Green revolution”. Because of this, I have always associated science with its application in agriculture. Therefore, it is no surprise that I ended up as a crop scientist.

I feel fortunate to be working in crop genetics in this era, when we are on the cusp on another “green revolution”, which will be powered by the new genomic technologies.”

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