After my holidays, my first visit was to the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB-TAG), where I enjoyed seeing the many recent developments in all phases of the ‘pipeline’ from some comparatively basic research on optimizing genetic transformation in wheat to some very applied work involving varietal testing and an innovation farm showcasing various activities. As the UK’s largest grain crop, wheat is an important target (including for genomics-driven breeding), and NIAB was studying a great many varieties.

Not least since the paper of Meuwissen and colleagues in 2001, it has been recognized that breeding strategies are likely to work better when one has knowledge of as much as possible of the genotype as well as of the phenotype, although the difficulty lies more in the optimization of the genotype-phenotype mapping. Genome sequences continue to be released apace (e.g. that for an apple variety), and the opportunities afforded by the upcoming genome sequencing of wheat – see last week’s blog – are truly enormous. 

Agriculture, like food security, is global, and a couple of very interesting articles I read this week pertain. The first – “the miracle of the cerrado” – charted how Brazil went from being a net agricultural importer to being now a massive exporter, a transition based in large part on exploiting the best science available, led by Embrapa. The article gives many examples of how this was done, including the breeding of a grass from an African source into a variety yielding 20-25 t.ha-1. This agricultural expansion was done not at the expense of any tropical rainforest but by improving savannah (the cerrado of the article’s title) in the southern and eastern parts of the country, and there is still much more to be achieved there. Breeding also produced soybeans varieties that would grow in tropical rather than the usual more temperate climates (so one wonders then whether one might not be able to breed soybeans suited to UK agriculture).

China is another major agricultural country, and another article surveys what potential impacts climate change might bring to Chinese agriculture and water resources. Despite very large uncertainties, a general conclusion is that there will be both losses and gains; they may well offset each other overall, but they are potentially so large we do not yet know.

Readers of this blog will be aware that I have become extremely interested in the use of very-deep-rooting plants in agriculture (and agro-ecology), and thus I much enjoyed reading the monumental Wurzelatlas (atlas of roots, but the book is in German) illustrating the enormous range and diversity of root morphology in existing crop plants. One recent paper indicates the large carbon sequestration/storage capacity of rangelands, more than 100t.ha-1 when soil depths of 2-3m are included. We still know rather little about many of signals involved in root extension, and a new paper describes the involvement (in Arabidopsis) of novel sulphated peptides. Note that the soil atlas of Europe can be downloaded as individual pages (a 4 Mb pdf file of the UK is here) or sections (or as a thumping 414Mb file for the whole thing),

Zoonoses continue to attract our interest, with two contrasting issues in pigs under discussion, the first a recognition of the transfer of a (fortunately not very virulent) strain of MRSA ‘from pigs to people’, the second an encouraging approach, involving priming with a DNA vaccine, to the production of broad-target-range vaccines against H1N1 ‘swine’ flu. To understand how big some disasters really are or have been, the BBC Dimensions site makes compelling viewing.

As well as natural evolution and natural or directed breeding, it is possible to study evolution in the laboratory, and in a new paper a number of aptamers – nucleic acid sequences that can bind target molecules – were found that evolved, from very different starting points, to ones containing the same motif, a clear example of convergent evolution.

Staying on the evolutionary theme, another interesting paper discussed altruistic intercellular signaling and kin selection in bacteria, something that I have had an interest in for quite some time.

Biological and computational resources remain an important part of our portfolio, and we have just launched the next round of applications to our Bioinformatics and Biological Resources fund.

Finally, on the domestic agricultural (or rather horticultural) front, the autumn glut of veg leads one to note, as Shakespeare nearly said, “when courgettes come, they come not single spies but in battalions”.

Related posts (based on tags and chronology):