24 June 2015

Dr Steve Penfield to lead research for more vigorous seeds


Dr Steve Penfield has been awarded funding from the Horticulture and Potato Initiative to develop improved ‘designer’ seeds.

Dr Penfield’s project is one of six chosen nationwide to receive funding from the Horticulture and Potato Initiative (HAPI), which is supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).  

The seeds will reduce costs for growers through more efficient germination rates and have less environmental impact due to more efficient use of agrichemicals. The project will also develop a new microscopic method for visualising uptake of substances in real time in a living seed.

Poor ability of seeds to germinate is a problem for seed growers. Many seeds in a batch will remain dormant when sowed and fail to produce a plant. This impacts on yield and increases costs for growers.

The problem is only expected to worsen with climate change. Dr Penfield has shown in previous research that temperature is a crucially important factor in regulating seed vigour, with a 1 ⁰C margin having huge effects on seed potential to germinate. As temperatures during seed set become increasingly unpredictable, seed vigour and germination rates are expected to fall.

Dr Steve Penfield Dr Steve Penfield Dr Penfield’s project will work on the genetics of Brassicas to make seeds more robust to temperature changes. The genetic response of seeds to temperature is conserved across many relatives of Brassica, so Dr Penfield’s research will provide a useful model across many vegetable seeds. The project will involve working with an industry partner, Syngenta Seeds, to help improve methods for seed production.

Vigour is also influenced by the coatings applied during processing. However, the seed is highly selective in its uptake of external nutrients and currently the seed takes up as little as 5% of agrichemicals applied in coatings.

Understanding the genetic regulation of the way seeds take up specific compounds will allow Dr Penfield’s team to develop seeds which take up substances more efficiently and require less agrichemical application in seed coats. This would mean a reduction in the use of fungicides, pesticides, and growth regulators applied to seeds, making seeds more environmentally friendly.

This part of the project, collaborating with Professor Moger at the University of Exeter, will develop an innovative new method of visualising how the seed takes up agrichemicals. This new microscopic technique will allow scientists to follow the uptake of substances in intact, living seeds, complementing the research into genetic regulation of how the seed takes up agrichemicals.

Dr Penfield will also be collaborating with AHDB Horticulture (formerly Horticultural Development Company, HDC).

Dr Steve Penfield said: “Designer seeds have the potential for a more reliable performance for seed companies and growers, combined with more efficient use of agrichemicals. We are excited to be able to work with our partners to take this technology out from the laboratory and test it in real field conditions.”

Professor Moger, Associate Professor of Biophotonics at the University of Exeter, said: “I am really excited by this award since it provides me with an opportunity to develop a new analytical tool that could have a significant impact on society and the environment.”

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