Significant improvements in wheat yields have been achieved
over the past 50 years while the global area sown to crops has
remained reasonably constant. The release of new varieties and
improvements in agronomic practices have been largely responsible
for these yield increases.
The start of systematic breeding in the late 1800s through
to today’s improved varieties has been driven by the adoption
of new technologies such as selective and mutation breeding,
statistical computer-based analysis of field data and more recently
marker assisted selection.
The ongoing improvement in varieties, despite an increasingly
competitive production environment, has been achieved through
the willingness of breeders and the farming community to adopt
Biotechnology, genomics and phenomics are now emerging as key
new technologies for developing even better varieties and helping
ensure that yields continue to increase. Genomics provides scientists
with tools to understand and investigate the 30,000 genes in
barley and the 100,000 genes in wheat and then, with phenomics,
determine which genes are involved in determining the quality
characteristics, the disease or the abiotic stress response.
Using this information, crop improvements can then be effected
using either marker assisted selection or genetic modification.
The Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG)
– a major initiative of the Grains Research and Development
Corporation and the Australian Research Council – is funded
to understand fundamental plant processes that can subsequently
be manipulated to increase biotic stress tolerance in wheat
and barley, commonly encountered by cereal crops in Australia
Drought, salinity and nutrient deficiency are abiotic stresses
which are the subject of particular focus by the ACPFG.
Speaking at recent GRDC grower Updates at Cummins and Minnipa
in South Australia, ACPFG research scientist Dr Andrew Jacobs
said the centre was generating drought tolerance markers for
the selection of adapted lines in conventional breeding programs,
and developing transgenic cereal lines carrying genes for adaptation
to drought from a range of drought-tolerant sources. Dr Jacobs
said the development of salt-tolerant crops was also a major
“We are also using genomics and associated technologies
to investigate the mechanisms cereal crops employ to tolerate
toxic levels of soil boron,” Dr Jacobs said.
“One of the main genes involved in boron tolerance has
now been identified, which will enable breeders to enhance the
efficiency of breeding for boron tolerance, either through conventional
or transgenic breeding programs.”
By studying the genes involved in transporting nitrogen in
plants, researchers are working to improve the way plants use
nitrogen fertiliser. And as Dr Jacobs says, reducing the amount
of fertiliser needed could reduce environmental pollution and
save farmers money.
The ACPFG has over the past year or so achieved a number of
research advances which have opened a wide range of new options.
The centre has now developed several new technologies that have
the potential to significantly improve stress tolerance in cereals.
Dr Jacobs said the translation of these findings into practical
outcomes remained a challenge, however, the centre was now in
a position to demonstrate the practicality of many of the research
outcomes and this will help build the necessary delivery pathways.
“To deliver the benefits of this research to the cereal
growing community at an increased rate, the ACPFG has links
with many wheat and barley breeding programs and major research
organisations,” Dr Jacobs said. “This increases
the efficiency of providing research outcomes to farmers.”