Innovative wheat genome research awarded five-year European funding

An ambitious research project to improve global wheat production has been awarded a major slice of European funding.

The project led by Professor Cristobal Uauy at the John Innes Centre will use tools such as gene editing to engineer useful genetic variation in wheat’s huge and notoriously complex genome.

By making the resulting plant material available to breeders, the high-impact project could be critical in increasing productivity in the world’s most widely grown crop.

Professor Uauy is one of 301 leading researchers and scholars to receive a share of €600 million funding announced today by the European Research Council (ERC).

The ERC Consolidator grants recognise high-risk, high impact research and allow project leaders to build up teams to address some of the most urgent questions facing humanity. Professor Uauy’s grant is worth €2m over five years.

“We are delighted and excited to receive this funding because it will help us to address the urgent need for increasing crop yields,” says Professor Uauy. “Despite the need for a 50% increase in crop production by 2050 our current rates of yield increase are insufficient to reach this goal,” he adds.

Wheat research has benefited from a swathe of new resources in recent years – including the publication of the complete sequence of the wheat genome in 2018.

But the polyploid nature of wheat – bread wheat for example has 16 billion pieces of genetic information organised across three sets of chromosomes – means that identifying useful traits remains a major obstacle.

“Having three sets of chromosomes is a bit like having three lights – you don’t see the effect clearly in black and white until all three are switched off,” explains Professor Uauy.

“The other problem is that you have multiple genes that control the trait that we see in the plant. The aim of the project is to prioritise influential genes that are important to agronomic traits and use gene editing and other methods to improve traits in the field.”

“We aim to deliver publicly-accessible germplasm with unique and novel variation that will enhance wheat productivity traits beyond what is traditionally possible.”

The consolidator grant winners will carry out their projects at universities and research centres in 24 different countries across Europe, with Germany (52 grants) the UK (50), France (43) and Netherlands (32) as leading locations.

The research projects proposed by the new grantees cover a wide range of topics in physical sciences and engineering, life sciences, as well as social sciences and humanities.

The ERC received 2,453 research proposals this time, of which approximately 12% will be funded. 31% of grants were awarded to female applicants. This new round of grants should create around 2,000 jobs for postdoctoral researchers, PhD students and other staff working in the grant winners’ research teams.

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