Recently, QAAFI scientists Dr Lee Hickey and Prof Ian Godwin travelled to St Petersburg, Russia. Their travel to Russia formed part of a new project that seeks to rapidly discover and exploit novel disease resistance genes that are likely present in ancient wheat landraces – originally collected from around the world by the renowned Russian scientist Dr Nikolai Vavilov.
Born in 1887, Nikolay Vavilov was a prominent Russian and Soviet botanist and geneticist best known for his theory relating to “the centres of origin of cultivated plants”. He devoted his life to the study and improvement of wheat, corn, and other cereal crops that sustain the global population. He travelled the world collecting more seeds, tubers and fruits than any person in history. The collections, including many wheat landraces, were stored in a seedbank in Leningrad (St Petersburg), which is now known as the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry .
During the “Siege of Leningrad” in World War II, which lasted 28 months, the seedbank comprising 250,000 samples of seeds, roots and fruits, was remarkably preserved by the Soviets. In fact, a group of scientists at the Vavilov Institute took shifts protecting them. Because it was considered so important to those guarding the seedbank, they refused to eat its contents. By the end of the siege in 1944, nine of them had died of starvation.
The seedbank was saved, but Vavilov himself faced an ironic fate. On 6th August 1940, Vavilov was arrested for criticising the non-Mendelian concepts of Trofim Lysenko, who had the support of Joseph Stalin. Vavilov was sentenced to death in July 1941. In 1942 his sentence was reduced to 20 years imprisonment, but he died in prison in 1943 of starvation.
The new QAAFI project also seeks to establish collaboration with the Russian
scientists that follow in the footsteps of the great Vavilov. Dr Hickey claims “by using a combination of new technologies we can rapidly discover new sources of disease resistance genes in the hidden treasures of the Vavilov seedbank”.
“We are focussing on some of the most important diseases of Australian wheat crops, such as yellow spot and rust pathogens” says Prof Ian Godwin.
Yellow spot is caused by the pathogen Pyrenophora tritici-repentis and currently contributes to the highest yield losses in in Australia, causing a very serious threat to the wheat industry. Yellow spot is a stubble-borne leaf disease, thus wheat-on-wheat crop rotations and zero or minimal tillage farming practices are contributing to the build-up of inoculum in farmer’s fields.
On the other hand, rust diseases of wheat (i.e. stripe, leaf and stem rust) are air-borne pathogens and can occur throughout most wheat growing regions of Australia. They have the ability to mutate and render resistance genes ineffective, thus wheat breeders require a constant supply of new genes to combat these rapidly evolving pathogens.
Dr Hickey has developed “speed breeding” technology at UQ in collaboration with colleague, Dr Mark Dieters. Their approach
uses controlled environmental glasshouse conditions fitted with lighting to accelerate plant development, thereby allowing up to 7 plant generations of wheat in just 12 months.
“Our rapid generation cycling will allow the new resistance genes to be plugged into Australian wheat cultivars within a short time” says Dr Hickey.
Dr Hickey and Prof Godwin also made time to enjoy some of the sights and delicious Russian food. They were hosted by Prof Olga Afanasenko, Head of Department of Plant Resistance to Diseases of All Russian Research Institute for Plant Protection (VIZR), who provided a short tour of the Summer Palace in Peterhof and Pushkin. “International collaboration is one of the perks of being a scientist” admits Prof Godwin.
Dr Hickey says “I hope this will be the beginning of a long-term collaboration with Russian scientist and I can’t wait to visit again next year”.
This project is funded a UQ Early Career Researcher Grant awarded to Dr Hickey.