Editorial By John Lovett
This issue of Ground Cover brings you an in-depth look at the benefits of biotechnology to the grains industry — with a special focus on wheat-breeding advances in response to industry needs.
Our special liftout also provides a good overview of what gene technology is and is not — for instance, it is not the same thing as biotechnology although the terms are often used interchangeably in the popular media. Gene technology is a specialised branch of biotechnology which offers scientists some precision tools.
Farmers and researchers also want to be aware of the consumer and agrichemical company viewpoints on gene technology so we have included those for your consideration.
The important thing to remember is that the arena of biotechnology is much broader than the current debate about gene technology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Biotechnology has been with us since about 2000 BC when the Egyptians and Sumerians developed fermentation, which bequeathed us bread, beer and cheese.
Modern crop improvements rely heavily on biotechnology and the industry has reaped the benefits (see pl2-15 for advances in wheat).
The GRDC invests heavily in a range of biotechnology techniques to aid plant breeders. Molecular markers for
genes are an excellent example of this. Using this tracking device, a plant breeder can easily determine which plants in his breeding program contain a gene known to be responsible for a particular trait.
It involves a small leaf sample, which is used to look for the DNA fingerprint of the gene of interest. This fast-tracks the research process considerably saving money— in current usage the end product is almost always a 'conventional' grain, not a GMO.
Last year 10 molecular markers were developed in GRDC-supported projects to screen for disease and agronomic traits in barley breeding.
Another good example of conventional biotechnology is the doubled-haploid technique which fast-tracks the process of providing true breeding lines. The technique is used in wheat, barley, rice, rye, maize, rapeseed and pepper. The process involves giving plants a duplicate set of identical genes, ensuring it will breed true, and sidesteps numerous stages of crossing different genetic lines.
Scientists also do interspecific crosses, which overcome the normal barriers to sexual crosses between different species, enabling the transfer of alien genes to cereal germplasm. Triticale, a cross between wheat and cereal rye, is a good example. The end result may sound like a GMO, but it has been attained by conventional means. Resistance to barley yellow dwarf virus was transferred to wheat from a wild grass, Thinopyrum intermedium, another good example of this process.
These are just a few of the biotechnology techniques you'll find outlined on pages 11-22 of this Ground Cover