The benefits of understanding plant genes: how they work and what controls them

‘Genes in the Environment' (GEN) aims to improve our understanding of how plant genes function and what mechanisms control them. Part of that is understanding how the environment, and in particular temperature, affects plant growth and development, through the regulation of and variation in their genes.

As the global population continues to rise, feeding the world’s population becomes an increasing concern. However, increasing our knowledge of crop growth and development and subsequently improving our crops and agricultural practices is one positive contribution we can make towards alleviating the global food security challenge.

The GEN ISP is improving our understanding of some of the genetic factors which control crop yield. Understanding the function of and mechanisms controlling plant genes allows us to select for genes and traits which have a positive influence on the way plants grow, such as increased yield or resilience to high temperatures. This information is then used by plant breeders to improve the crops we grow.

Recent examples include
"A gene called UPL3 is a potential target for improving the yield of oil in oilseed rape. This has been licensed to the seed industry for assessment and once crossed into a commercial variety of oilseed rape we anticipate up to a 10% increase in the yield with the potential to expand into other crops both cereals and oilseeds such as soybean
In wheat, we have used our understanding for how seed length and width are controlled to generate new lines with the potential to increase yield," explains Dr. Teresa Penfield, Project Manager at the John Innes Centre. 

"We have further unravelled how the cold temperatures a plant experiences in autumn and winter influence when it flowers. This is important for crop scheduling and has also allowed us to develop a new short generation broccoli which will enable broccoli production all year round within the UK, reducing imports, waste and reliance on overseas production."

Developing and improving technology
GEN research both uses and develops new cutting-edge technology, some of which can be shared with other researchers and with industry to enhance capability and efficiency.

One example is SeedGerm, an automated platform for scoring seed germination using imaging alongside Artificial Intelligence. This is a useful tool in the lab and it has been developed and expanded to test suitability for a range of crops. SeedGerm is now being used by plant breeding companies to assess pre-commercial oilseed rape lines for germination vigor, an important trait for ensuring the crop establishes well in the field.

"Another tool we developed to quantify seed loss in Brassicas, known as the Random Impact Test System is now being investigated by the Agriculture and Horticultural Development Board with the aim of incorporating testing of oilseed rape varieties. This could provide information on podshatter in oilseed rape and enable them to include this assessment in their “Recommended List” which would provide farmers with independently assessed information," Dr. Teresa Penfield explains.

"We have developed computational and visualization tools such as MorphoGraphX, allowing us to measure everything from the sizes, locations and divisions of cells during leaf growth to crop development in trial plots in the field."

Providing valuable expertise to industry
GEN researchers are experts in their field and this knowledge can be applied to a wide range of challenges. 

"Our recent CRISPR field trial in oilseed rape was the first CRISPR trial to take place in the UK after an EU ruling which classified CRISPR modification as genetic modification. Our expertise now puts us in a strong position for advising policymakers on using this technology." 

For more information:
John Innes Centre  

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