Blue sky science links to green field outcomes

Photo of a man

Dr Phil Davies from SARDI checks the
performance of field pea plants in a trial at
the University of Adelaide’s Waite campus
in South Australia.

PHOTO: Rebecca Leigh

The role that pre-breeders play in supporting Australian farm productivity is changing. Efforts are underway to extend their role beyond their traditional trait-discovery and technology development work.

With the support of the GRDC, pre-breeders have been seeking to better coordinate and link their activities to commercial breeding programs, and deliver new traits and technologies in consultation with breeders.

The overall goal is to better integrate pre-breeding into one streamlined R&D pipeline that links laboratory discoveries more seamlessly to the processes that deliver high-performing new varieties into Australian paddocks.

For pulses, linkages are being promoted with the support of the GRDC, which has appointed a germplasm-enhancement coordinator to work alongside pre-breeders and Pulse Breeding Australia (PBA).

Stepping into this role is Dr Phil Davies of the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI). The role of coordinator is in addition to Dr Davies’ ongoing work on improving abiotic stress tolerance traits, in particular frost tolerance in field peas.

As coordinator, Dr Davies recently attended the annual PBA planning meeting. He says that tangible progress is being made despite the multifaceted and dynamically evolving nature of the problems faced by this particular R&D pipeline.

“In the past, germplasm enhancement projects did not always develop traits and technology that aligned with breeders’ needs and capabilities,” Dr Davies says.

“What we have done for pulses is ramp up coordination and feedback from breeders to provide them with better material and technology.”

The annual PBA planning meeting provides an opportunity for the sector to hear from researchers about their key findings and use that information to develop and deliver projects in a more coordinated fashion. With more than 30 people participating in 2013, the meeting also showcased the remarkable quality and range of pulse research activities, and also why breeder collaboration is so vital.

Key points

  • With GRDC support, pre-breeders are helping to close a technology-uptake gap in the breeding pipeline
  • Lentil, faba bean, field pea, chickpea and lupin breeding programs are already beneficiaries of better coordination among researchers and breeders

To illustrate, Dr Davies points to SARDI research that has identified useful levels of heat-stress tolerance in faba bean material sourced from Sudan. Studies found that these plants survive and set normal seed even after a severe stress test during flowering – 72 hours of exposure to 40ºC daytime temperature and 14 hours of 30ºC night-time temperatures.

“The stress test shows the Sudan material is an excellent source of heat-stress tolerance,” Dr Davies says.

However, the genetics that confer this trait are extremely complex and might previously have been put into “the too-hard basket”.

“The heat-stress tolerance is due to several genes dispersed across the genome – a situation that makes it difficult to breed all genes into elite cultivars without the genes becoming separated during the genetic recombination that occurs during sexual reproduction,” Dr Davies says.

But with the new open communication channels, he says all parties can confer and decide collaboratively on the course to take.

“We can weigh up the most effective strategies to move forward together to achieve a favourable solution for breeders.”

In the past, he says it might either have been considered too hard or tackled with technology not readily accessible by breeders in the course of their normal work.

Instead, Dr Davies has found there is sufficient interest in the trait to pursue molecular markers, which may provide a viable way to rapidly select for these heat-tolerance genes using a cost-effective DNA typing technology favoured by breeders.

He is now in discussion with relevant molecular biologists to identify the most efficient marker-discovery pathway for the Sudanese heat-stress-tolerance genes.

Beside abiotic stresses such as heat and frost, trait development projects are underway in two other major areas: quality traits and resistance to biotic stresses caused by fungi, bacteria, viruses or nematodes.

Progress is being made, especially regarding the development of cost-saving ways to screen and select germplasm for desirable disease resistance. Dr Davies cites the example of Dr Judith Lichtenzveig of Curtin University in Western Australia, who is developing new technologies and concepts for screening for resistance to ascochyta blight in chickpeas.

Dr Lichtenzveig is exploiting the finding that some fungal proteins are able to produce disease symptoms when inoculated onto leaves, bypassing the need for disease nurseries and vastly expanding the scope to screen for resistance while reducing costs. She has now developed a set of artificial Ascochyta proteins to apply to chickpeas.

“It is a very clever idea and researchers are already using that technology for yellow (tan) spot disease in wheat, which is a similar kind of disease to ascochyta blight,” Dr Davies says. “I think that work is really useful and shows a lot of promise.”

Overall, he is confident that there is enough diversity in the pulse gene pool to increase their share in Australia’s crop rotations. From his perspective, it is a question of the right selection tools, access to germplasm that evolved in a broad range of agro-climatic conditions, and the markers to bring all the needed traits together in elite material.

“Field peas have been grown in Australia for more than 100 years, so they have a long history in Australian farming systems,” he says. “While there is still a lot of work to do, there is no reason that the other temperate pulses including lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and lupins can’t be more broadly adapted to Australian growing conditions.”

“What we have done for pulses is ramp up coordination and feedback from breeders to provide them with better material and technology.”
– Dr Phil Davies

More information:

Dr Phil Davies,

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GRDC Project Code DAS00121

Region Overseas, South, West, National, North