GRDC looks ahead: technology to extract top performance from a challenging crop environment by Graeme Jennings

traits that increase grower options - early vigour, water-use efficiency, 'stay green' ability, frost tolerance, rust resistance and tolerance to 'hostile' soils

INNOVATION IS delivering new opportunities for the Australian grains industry, Ross Gilmour told the recent Grains Week conference in Adelaide.

Dr Gilmour, Program Manager of the GRDC Winter Cereals Improvement Program, said new breeding technologies are being used to develop productive solutions to major production constraints that previously have not been feasible.

The GRDC is a major investor in genomics and its related sciences and is a world leader in the field of whole-genome analysis. Dr Gilmour said the new genetic tools are proving their value in addressing ongoing challenges to production - climatic variability and physical limitations with hostile soils chief among them.

"Seasonal variability is a challenge that Australian cereal breeders and farming systems researchers must confront. It is critical to manage crop response to environmental variability, and it represents a significant opportunity to drive further increases in productivity."

Much of the GRDC-supported work in this field has made considerable strides towards introducing new traits to Australian cereal varieties. One of those traits is early vigour.

"Early vigour has the potential to signiticantly improve productivity, particularly in low rainfall environments." (See 'Early vigour coming along', on this page.)

Water-use efficiency (WUE) is also vital for maximum performance in Australia's variable climate and researchers are working to improve screening methods for carbon isotope discrimination.

"Carbon isotope discrimination is a good indicator of the WUE of wheat plants. If we can find an efficient way of selecting for carbon isotope discrimination, we will be able to screen material in plant breeding programs for WUE," Dr Gilmour said.

Plant breeders also hope they will be able to keep wheat plants greener longer in drought conditions.

"Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) researchers are working with major research organisations in the US to define the physiological nature of the 'stay green' character and identify the genes that control it.

'Stay green' confers yield advantages to sorghum by delaying the onset and reducing the rate of leaf senescence."

Other desirable traits being targeted in GRDC-supported projects include frost tolerance, disease resistance and ability to produce in 'hostile' soil environments.

'The grains industry has been the beneficiary of decades of research innovation - much of it funded by grain growers and the Federal Government through the GRDC - and this can be expected to continue," Dr Gilmour told his industry audience.

He sees the definition of clear breeding objectives. as the critical factor. "In driving crop improvement, we need to evaluate where we are now and where we want to be."

Good research outcomes would continue to depend on "a dedicated, skilled scientitic team, a clear definition and unwavering pursuit of the program's central objectives, and the committed support of the program's stakeholders".

These principles were central to achieving the spectacular improvements in global cereal yields over the past 50 years - around 1 per cent a year worldwide - and would continue to underpin Australia's cereal improvement programs, he said.

Region North