24 May 2012

£42 million investment in UK crop and natural chemical innovation

New research will help reinvigorate the genetic diversity of wheat, reduce farmers’ dependence on chemicals, put the UK at the lead of innovative research to grow plants as natural factories and accelerate the discovery of new antibiotics.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Council (BBSRC) will invest £42 million in plant and microbial science at the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park.

The announcement today is part of £250M of strategic investment by BBSRC to ensure the UK’s bioscience research base remains globally competitive. It is for the first phase of five year research programmes.
Commenting on the funding, Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts said: “This £250 million investment from BBSRC for the first phase of major five year research programmes will sustain excellent science at some of the UK’s leading institutes and universities. This will drive growth, support highly skilled jobs and keep the UK at the very forefront of bioscience, with benefits ranging from healthcare to energy and global food security.”

Wheat pre-breeding research coordinated by JIC will broaden the gene pool, or ‘germplasm’, for wheat. The current possibilities for improving wheat are reaching their limit. Scientists will collaborate on producing new lines of bread wheat with priority traits. These include improved resistance to diseases and insects, greater tolerance to drought, salt and heat, and enhanced yield.

Breeders will be able to take them on for further selection to produce elite varieties for release.
“This project will bridge the gap between publicly-funded plant science and private breeding companies,” said JIC Director Professor Dale Sanders. 

The seed and genetic information, such as genetic markers for precision breeding, will be stored centrally at JIC’s Germplasm Resource Unit. All the seed and information will be free of patents and available to breeders and researchers worldwide.

Other JIC research will explore the wealth of chemicals that plants and microbes are able to create.  Plant and microbial cells are factories, making all the biochemicals needed for growth, reproduction and for defence against attack. Many of these natural products are already used as food, medicines, flavours and fragrances.
“There is enormous potential for discovering new molecules,” said Professor Sanders.

The scientists will also explore how the productivity of plants and microbes can be harnessed to create “new-to-nature” chemicals with improved or altered biological properties.

The research will lead to higher crop productivity and better food quality and nutrition. It will help produce biofuels and industrial raw materials more sustainably. New molecules will help create new drugs such as anti-infectives, anti-cancer agents and immuno-suppressants. And better herbicides will be identified.

For the first time BBSRC’s funding to institutes has been awarded through a number of distinct strategic programme grants to each institute – and in some cases across institutes and university partners. These have been combined with grants to support vital national research capabilities and with support for knowledge exchange, commercialisation and embedded activities, such as public engagement.

Institute Strategic Programme Grants

The JIC Institute Strategic Programme Grants (ISPGs) will conduct research on:

  • Wheat pre-breeding at JIC, Rothamsted Research, Bristol University, NIAB and the University of Nottingham - to build on BBSRC funding for the UK’s first wheat pre-breeding programme in two decades. This programme will support the development of new varieties of wheat for farmers by broadening the number of traits available for breeding.

  • Understanding and exploiting plants and microbes as factories for food, bio-industry and health. The research will generate a better understanding how plants and microbes produce the chemicals they need for growth, reproduction and defence against attack. With this knowledge, scientists can design new ways to exploit these molecules.

  • Every year farmers experience crop losses due to pests, pathogens and poor plant nutrition. Pesticides and fertilisers are currently used to overcome these losses, but this comes with environmental and economic costs.  Research will help identify biological solutions to enhance crop yields and replace agrochemical use.

  • The characteristics of plants that make them such a great source of food are determined by interactions between their genetic make-up and their environment. A major challenge in biological research is to understand how this interaction works. This knowledge is needed to improve the yield and adaptability of crop plants.

National capabilities

14 strategic UK capabilities will be developed or maintained by the funding, including at JIC: 

The most widely grown crops in the world are small grain cereals such as wheat, barley and oats. The most comprehensive UK public seed collection for these crops is at The Germplasm Resources Unit at JIC. Public seed collections around the world ensure that genetic diversity in crops is protected and made available to researchers and breeders. JIC’s resource also houses one of the world’s most actively used collections for peas.



JIC press office

Zoe Dunford             01603 255111         zoe.dunford@nbi.ac.uk

Andrew Chapple      01603 251490         andrew.chapple@nbi.ac.uk 

BBSRC External Relations

Rob Dawson, Head of News

Tel: 01793 413204, email: robert.dawson@bbsrc.ac.uk


Notes to Editors

The funding has been awarded following an extensive and thorough assessment of institute science and associated areas in knowledge exchange and commercialisation, public engagement and strategic human resources. The assessment was made by independent panels of experts and through the advice of BBSRC strategy advisor panels.

The final decisions on funding have been made by BBSRC Council.

All institutes have been awarded an institute development grant in additional to ISPGs and NCGs. This is intended to support institute activities such as public engagement and strategic HR and to give institutes the flexibility to respond to opportunities in the next five years.

About the John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre, www.jic.ac.uk, is a world-leading research centre based on the Norwich Research Park www.nrp.org.uk. The JIC’s mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, and to apply its knowledge to benefit agriculture, human health and well-being, and the environment. JIC delivers world class bioscience outcomes leading to wealth and job creation, and generating high returns for the UK economy. JIC is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by the UK Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk 

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes

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