Our research spans the spectrum from new discoveries in fundamental science to strategic applications to practical outcomes for agriculture and human health.
Recently our research has led to gains in wheat yield, increased wheat resistance to disease and helped prevent pod shatter in oil seed rape crops, saving billions of pounds.
In 2013, an independent report by Brookdale Consulting found that every £1 invested in research at the John Innes Centre, results in a £12 return in 10 years.
Wheat is the UK's largest crop, grown on over 2 million hectares, with a harvest worth over £1.68bn to the economy.
“The demand for wheat is such that total production over the next 50 years will need to exceed the total produced in the 10,000 years since agriculture began.”
This was the challenge facing Prof Graham Moore when in 2004 he and colleagues reviewed the UK wheat research. Yields had plateaued and breeders were struggling to find sources of genetic variation to meet new challenges.
The problem wasn’t that it didn’t exist; it just wasn’t available in an accessible form. The UK has stopped producing experimental crosses with wild wheat and grasses.
Graham proposed that the UK should re-establish the wheat pre-breeding programme that he had seen during his early career at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. His vision was “to generate crosses capable of enhancing diversity in wheat, transferring traits of high agronomic potential ready for breeders to generate varieties with elite performance.”
A consortium of leading research centres, Rothamsted Research, NIAB-TAG, University of Nottingham and University of Bristol, joined forces with the UK wheat breeding industry and with support from the BBSRC the £15m Wheat Improvement Strategic Programme (WISP) was formed.
Ten years on and the outputs are impacting on the development of new wheat varieties. To deliver more useful genetic variation a breeders ‘toolkit’ comprising 40 lines captures the diversity from 800 historic wheat accessions; 100 new hexaploid wheats ‘synthesised’ by hybridizing modern durum wheat with goat grass; and the Axiom Wheat Breeders Array with 820,000 new genetic markers (SNPs) and 400 million data points is accelerating selection breeding. Outputs are being exploited beyond the UK with materials used at international centres including CIMMYT (Mexico), ICARDA (Morocco), the Directorate of Wheat Research (India), the University of Sydney (Australia) and the Chinese Academy of Science (Beijing).
Due to its impact the pre-breeding model has been adopted and replicated for wheat in the USA and Germany and France and is extending beyond wheat to include a wide range of crops.
Resistance to fungicides is increasing. Each year UK wheat farmers can lose 30% of their yield to infection by a single fungus, Septoria.
Professor James Brown and his team broke the connection between Septoria resistance and a reduction in yield (yield penalty) which had hampered breeding efforts. Using the new molecular markers, plant breeders have developed more durable Septoria resistant wheats reducing the dependence on chemical control with fungicides.
The reasons for the annual battle and the dependence on fungicides originate in the 1980s. Breeding between 1980 and 2000 prioritised dwarfed, high-yielding wheat. Professor James Brown then discovered in 2002 that selecting for yield also unintentionally selects for susceptibility to Septoria. From 2001 resistance to key fungicides also started to become a serious problem.
Professor Brown discovered that most breeders were relying heavily on a single source of resistance. From 2004 he began publishing data on new sources for resistance to Septoria which do not carry a yield penalty. He produced genetic maps revealing the location of resistance genes in wheat cultivars used for breeding. He made molecular markers available to make the breeding faster and cheaper.
The discovery by the Brown Group that Septoria tritici blotch resistance in wheat followed a gene-for-gene interaction overthrew previous dogma and revolutionized the genetics and breeding for this disease.
Furthermore, the follow-on discovery that many commonly used resistance genes carried a yield penalty is now enabling breeders and researchers to carefully choose new resistance genes that enhance both resistance and yield potential to this devastating disease.
Oilseed rape has emerged as an important agricultural plant and is now the second largest oilseed crop with an annual worldwide production of 38 million tons of oil.
Due to its young age as a crop compared to e.g. wheat and barley, oilseed rape still has many 'weedy' characters.
One of these, is unsynchronised pod shatter, where fruits open in the field and seeds fall to the ground.
This is a problem for oilseed rape farmers worldwide, and in the UK pod shattering leads to annual losses of 11-25%
In 2011 pod shatter resulted in £165 million of lost income.
Prof Lars Ostergaard and colleagues at the John Innes Centre have developed a technology to moderate levels of a plant the hormone, gibberellin to control pod-shattering.
Working with plant breeders the technology is being used to develop improved oilseed rape varieties.
Baby leaf kale resistant to downy mildew disease created in collaboration between industry and science
Downy mildew in baby leaf kale, could be a thing of the past, thanks to a recent collaboration between industry and science.
The project saw the John Innes Centre and CN Seeds, a company specialising in the breeding, production and marketing of baby leaf salads and herbs, collaborate to develop a variety of baby leaf kale that is displaying increased resistance to the damaging disease, downy mildew.
CN Seeds contacted the John Innes Centre, for our help in combating this issue. Following initial discussions with Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation manager Dr Jonathan Clarke, CN Seeds were put in touch with Dr Chris Ridout.
Dr Ridout hosted CN Seeds plant breeder Sujit Tha in his laboratory and was able to share techniques for screening varieties of baby leaf kale to find the one most resistant to the downy mildew disease.
The collaborative project was able to screen a diverse range baby leaf kale from across the country and, using the screening techniques, was able to identify a few varieties most resistant.
These varieties can then be bred to create a variety of baby leaf kale that is resistant to the downy mildew disease. CN Seeds were then able to grow the new variety under protective netting, without the risk of downy mildew infection.
As a direct result of the project, CN Seeds have built a plant pathology lab at their headquarters to allow them to conduct their own screening.
The John Innes Centre is continuing collaborations, with a new PhD student position, whose work will further improve our understanding about mildew disease prevention, helping future crop growers to increase their yields without the need for pesticides.