Gene banks contribute significantly to the conservation of biological diversity around the world. In addition to negative traits, old and exotic varieties have many valuable gene variants that have been lost in modern varieties but may be critical for future plant production. But how can this untapped resource of valuable biodiversity be used in agriculture?
This is the question being investigated by a research team. They were successful in detecting new biodiversity from old varieties for yield performance and resistance to yellow rust infestation in an interdisciplinary approach involving plant breeders, plant geneticists, plant pathologists, and bioinformaticians in order to leverage it for crop production.
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research has been funding the work for the past six years, allowing the IPK Leibniz Institute’s extensive collection of old wheat varieties to be tested in the laboratory as well as in field trials for yield performance and resistance to yellow rust.
We were able to identify possible new gene variants for resistance to yellow rust infestation through comprehensive sequencing of old and new varieties in combination with valuable field data.Dr. Albert Schulthess
“This required a logistical masterstroke from all project participants, as well as many innovative approaches to evaluate the potential of the old varieties without causing disruption,” says Dr. Albert Schulthess, the study’s first author. For example, old varieties were crossed with adapted elite varieties to determine yield potential. Only then was the old varieties’ yield potential clearly visible.
And that’s not all: the researchers used the results to develop bridging lines for wheat breeding from promising old varieties by crossing them with current varieties. The performance of the resulting progeny surprised the researchers: “We observed higher yields in some bridging lines as compared to important current elite varieties,” says Dr. Albert Schulthess, scientist in the research group “Quantitative Genetics.”
Prof. Dr. Jochen Reif, consortium coordinator and head of the research group, is convinced that by involving the two breeding companies, the biodiversity of the elite pool can be increased by using new valuable genetic variation of the bridge lines: “This is critical to addressing the enormous problems that climate change poses to agriculture.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. The study’s findings enable a significant step toward pesticide-free farming. “We were able to identify possible new gene variants for resistance to yellow rust infestation through comprehensive sequencing of old and new varieties in combination with valuable field data,” says Dr. Albert Schulthess. This would not have been possible without the decoding of the wheat genome, in which the IPK Leibniz Institute played a leading role.
“With the new genome regions discovered in a few old varieties, we can diversify wheat’s immune system,” explains Prof. Dr. Jochen Reif.
However, significant challenges remain before the new resistance genes can be used in plant production. For example, resistance genes must be validated and incorporated into the background of elite lines. Ideally, a deeper understanding of the nature of the defense response would be gained at the same time. This would allow the new sources of resistance to be used in the long run. Prof. Dr. Jochen Reif is overjoyed because the project’s extension has been approved and funding for the next three years has been promised.