Biotechnology: de-stressing plants first target for genomics centre

Dr Peter Langridge: insights on how plants react to environmental stresses will deliver real outcomes.

FARMERS MAY have to wait a few years for the first direct benefits from the new Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, but those benefits - wheat and barley varieties with superior tolerance to boron and frost tolerance - will be just the beginning.

Centre Director Peter Langridge speaks of an accelerating stream of varieties able to tolerate superior an increasing range of environmental stresses.

Dr Langridge, Professor of Plant Science at the University of Adelaide, believes researchers at the Centre will make most rapid progress on identifying the genes controlling boron and frost tolerance, with insights to other limiting factors not far behind.

They will also be looking at how cereals tolerate drought and the related factors of heat and low moisture, frost and cold, waterlogging, salinity, ability to grow on soils deficient in nutrients such as manganese, zinc and copper, and tolerance to nutrient toxicities including boron, sodium and aluminium.

The work done at the Centre, which is supported by growers and the Federal Government through the GRDC, as well as the Australian Research Council and the SA Government, may ultimately be used in genetic engineering to improve crop performance.

However, there will be even wider benefits for conventionally bred crop varieties from the application of genomics: understanding the nature and behaviour of the entire genetic complement of organisms.

"Functional genomics involves coming to an understanding of the genetic structure of an organism - in this case, cereals - then applying that knowledge to achieve beneficial outcomes.

"We are confident the insights on how plants react to environmental stresses will deliver real outcomes worth many millions of dollars to farmers within a few years.

"Once we understand the role of each gene, or group of genes, we can identify those that are part of tolerance or resistance mechanisms and search for novel variants of the genes that have helped the grasses to conquer so many harsh environments.

"With that knowledge plant breeders can focus on those genes and how they can be transferred into crop plants where they will produce benefits in the form of more reliable cropping in adverse conditions.

The Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, one of fewsuch institutions in the world, will employ 100 people once it reaches full capacity. It is based at the University of Adelaide with nodes at the University of Melbourne, DNRE at Latrobe University, and the University of Queensland.

Contact: Dr Peter Langridge 0883037368

Region North