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Ancient genes to protect modern wheat

  Scientists from The University of Queensland are undertaking world-first research into ancient wheats to ensure the crop’s future. Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation’s Dr Lee Hickey said humans domesticated wheat about 10,000 years ago. “Modern breeding and a switch to monoculture cropping has greatly improved yield and quality, but the lack of genetic variation has caused crops to become more vulnerable to new diseases and climate change,” he said. “Diversity in ancient strains could hold the key to the future.”   Dr Hickey said disease and drought cost the industry millions of dollars every year, and climate change was likely to make the situation worse. Fortunately for today’s researchers, Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov devoted his life to the improvement of cereal crops. During the early 1900s, Vavilov travelled the world collecting seeds that he stored in a seed bank in Leningrad, now known as the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Genetic Resources. “Vavilov’s unique seed collection represents a snap shot of ancient wheats grown around the world prior to modern breeding,” Dr Hickey said. Following in the footsteps of the Russian scientist, UQ PhD student Adnan Riaz has performed the world’s first genome-wide analysis of Vavilov’s seeds. “A total of 295 diverse wheats were examined using 34,000 DNA markers,” Mr Riaz said. “The genomic analysis revealed a massive array of genes that are absent in modern Australian wheat cultivars. “The ancient genes could offer valuable sources of disease resistance or drought tolerance.” The Hickey Lab has offers the research community open-access to this resource, including the pure seed of the ancient wheats, along with DNA marker information. “We hope this will empower scientists and wheat breeders to rediscover genetic diversity lying dormant in our seed banks,” Dr Hickey said. The Hickey Lab research, ‘Into the vault of the Vavilov wheats: old diversity for new alleles’, is published in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.
 

 
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Farming in 2030: Researchers cast the net for the next generation of farmers

Dr Lee Hickey's version of 2030 features robots, drones and intelligent machines as common place on farms, helping to reduce labour costs and chemical use. 

The University of Queensland researcher has crafted a narrative based around "Farmer Tim" in 2030. 

In the story, which Dr Hickey told at an Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering conference, it's June 2030, mid-way through the winter wheat growing season and Tim gets an urgent message. 

One day Tim receives a notification on his iPhone version 26.

His crop management app is warning him of an outbreak of yellow spot, a pretty nasty disease. The monitoring drone has detected the disease in the paddock while Tim was taking a shower. Tim slides through his management options and instructs his sprayer drone to take care of the problem. The drone, like the tractor, knows every inch of the farm and flies straight to the paddock with the disease. But instead of deploying a traditional fungicide, the drone applies to the crop, RNA that is specially designed to silence the gene in the pathogen that is required for producing the spores.

So instead of spending eight hours spraying his crop, Tim goes to the footy with his mates. In his lab, Dr Hickey has developed a process called "speed breeding", in intensive 24 hour lighting and controlled temperatures - a process inspired by how NASA grows food for astronauts in long space missions. 

"A big limitation in developing new varieties can take up to 20 years," Dr Hickey said.

"But in speed breeding we can achieve up to seven generations of wheat per year under constant lighting.

"It's a fantastic tool for selecting for traits and manipulating genes in the right combinations. So we can fast track the variety developing down to five to six years."

Read more here


Dr Lee Hickey and Anika Molesworth discuss the future of farming in Australia and southeast Asia

 
 
Drones in agriculture will soon detect crop diseases, and send alerts to farmers and researchers ( photo by: ABC News-Nadia Daly)
Drones in agriculture will soon detect crop diseases, and send alerts to farmers and researchers ( photo by: ABC News-Nadia Daly)
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Responding to climate change not as simple as planting more trees

 

The world is ready to take action on climate change and planting trees is often put forward as a solution. But, trees require water. We speak with Professor Karen Hussey from The University of Queensland about the options we have to combat climate change and weighing them up to protect our valuable resources.

 

 
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Can organic farms feed the world?

 

We consider organic foods to be healthier because they are produced without synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. However, organic farms are often less productive than conventional farms. We talk to Professor Susanne Schmidt from The University of Queensland about the role science has to play to improve the productivity of organic farms.

 

 
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Digging deep to drought-proof Australian barley

Hannah-Robinson-hickey-lab-uq
PhD student Hannah Robinson

In a world first, researchers from The University of Queensland have identified a key gene in barley that enables the plant to access water stored deep in the soil during droughts.

Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation’s Dr Lee Hickey said the gene promoted narrow root growth, which allowed the plant to grow roots that penetrate down to water stored deep within the soil.

“This may be one of the most exciting research findings to ever come out of my lab,” he said.

“PhD student Hannah Robinson has undertaken the first study of its kind that aims to connect root architecture to yield in barley. Her findings will impact everything from predicting yield to modelling.

“Even in a drought, there is water deep underground and to be able to breed plants with the type of root system to access this water means growers can maintain barley yields in drought conditions.”  

A former medical student turned plant scientist, Ms Robinson has identified the gene across the barley and wheat species. “Our latest findings demonstrate that the gene for narrow root growth provides a significant yield advantage throughout Queensland and New South Wales,” Ms Robinson said.  

“Even before the harvesters hit the paddock, the lack of rain caused by the current El Niño has stripped around half a billion dollars in yield from the wheat industry and looks set to also have a major impact on the barley industry,” she said.

“While barley crops on the Australian east coast enter the critical grain filling period, there appears to be no relief in sight as the next few months are forecast to be drier than average.”

Australia is the 8th largest barley producer worldwide, producing around 7.5 million tonnes of barley annually.

Most barley in Australia is used for animal feed and beer production, but in North Africa and Southwest Asia, barley is a main staple food.

“Worldwide, the largest limitation on barley production is water,” said Ms Robinson.

“Dry seasons mean lower yield and less profit for farmers. The effect is more severe in droughts and El Niño weather events.”

Ms Robinson’s barley research has been undertaken with support from a Grains Research Development Corporation scholarship.

 

 
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What Motivates a Superbug Scientist?

 Matt Cooper tells us how he became interested in infectious diseases, and what motivates him to find new solutions to the growing superbug problem.

 

 

 
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speed breeding and drones are the future of wheat production

Integrating modern plant breeding technologies to wheat production is vital to sustain global populations in the future, according to some researchers. Dr Lee Hickey, research fellow at the University of Queensland, will be running a workshop looking at 'speed breeding' and the use of drones at the 9th International Wheat Conference in Sydney next week. Dr Hickey and other scientists at the university developed speed breeding in 2013 from technologies developed by NASA.

 

 

Speed breeding accelerates the genetic gain in wheat, and is resistant to stripe rust and pre-harvest sprouting, which are common reasons for yield loss. "It's a great tool to develop wheat varieties faster [because] wheat breeding is slow; it can take 10 sometimes 20 years to develop a new and improved variety," Dr Hickey said.

"Companies are starting to use it now to breed varieties in Australia which is fantastic."  Dr Hickey said other emerging technologies are also proving valuable for farmers on the field. He said the workshops at the global conference are aimed at early career breeders and scientists. "It's very important that we are attracting young people into science and wheat improvement," he said.

"We need new ideas, we need to be thinking outside of the box because we face some pretty big challenges in the future to grow a growing population."

source: abc website

 

lee-hicley-speed-wheat researcher-speeds-wheat-breeding
Lee Hickey is growing plants under lights to speed the breeding process up six times.
"We need new ideas, we need to be thinking outside of the box  because we face some pretty big challenges in the future to grow a growing population.
Lee Hickey, University of Queensland research fellow
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Antibiotics and the Emerging Superbug Threat

About 100 years ago bacteria spread through a cough or an open wound could easily kill us, thanks to antibiotics this is no longer the case. But bacteria are fighting back! New strains of bacteria known as superbugs are developing resistance to antibiotics. The World Health Organization has highlighted this as one of the greatest threats to human health. We spoke with Professor Matt Cooper about superbugs and potential

 

 
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Are GMOs and organic foods compatible?

Dr Lee Hickey chat with Professor Ian Godwin from The University of Queensland about genetically modified food crops.

Ian believes that GMO foods and organic agriculture are perfectly compatible. He explains that scientists are creating GMO plants to achieve a more sustainable agriculture. The idea is to create plants resistant to pests and diseases, that don’t require the use of chemicals, but provide the same productivity and food quality.
He points out that our beloved “organic” potato is actually sprayed with copper to control disease and the use of copper fungicides in organic farming may be resulting in increased levels of copper in the soil and the food we eat.
So maybe it’s time we embrace GMOs for more sustainable agriculture and healthier food?
If you are after more information about this topic, below are a few good articles to get you started.
This article illustrates Ian’s example about the potato, traditional breeding won't work and production requires a lot of pesticides:
A huge meta analysis showing how GMOs have reduced pesticide use wherever it has been adopted.

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