WASTED beer is a good metaphor for the motivation of Australian scientists who are trying to take control of germination in commercial crops.
“Malting barley is essentially a controlled germination and if it doesn’t behave as expected, then you’ll end up with bad beer, foaming fermentation towers and a huge amount of lost money,” says La Trobe University’s Dr Mathew Lewsey.
He works at the University’s Centre for AgriBioscience, which in collaboration with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and the University of Western Australia has just published some encouraging results for gene editing technology.
The team is hoping their work will pave the way for genome-editing to produce reliable, predictable germination in commercial crop varieties.
Seed dormancy has a significant factor for crop breeders, who work to control it and the impacts to commercial yields.
“They breed carefully to control it in many crops because it affects their yields enormously,” Dr Lewsey said.
“Farmers want uniformity in the scale and rate of germination so they end up with nice, clean paddocks with no nasty surprises.”
To date, the studies used the “lab rat” plant small relative of cabbage, the Arabidopsis, which has “nice easy genomics that are small and convenient to work with”.
“Our research is trying to find patterns in big data. Working with big data is one thing, but generating useful information is another,” Dr Lewsey said.
The xxx team was able to move from a successful prediction that identified 30 genes in Arabidopsis they suspected was involved in the rate of germination.
“We randomly pulled nine genes (of the 30 identified) to confirm is they actually changed the rate of germination, and they all did. They are robust predictions.”
Dr Lewsey’s colleague Dr Reena Narsai, from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology said the aim was to apply these findings to commercial opportunities.
“Our next move is to transfer our findings from the model research plant Arabidopsis into crop plants such as barley and rice,” she said.
New cultivars of plants that germinate as growers want would be permanently modified so that, when those plants are propagated, their seeds and the offspring from those would all have the new behaviour.
“We will look to generate varieties that have accelerated or slowed-down germination and will study how they control the genetic switches that turn this off and on.”
Dr Lewsey expects research on genes in commercial crops to kick off in a couple of years.
“The ideal end point is to provide farmers with seeds that we can predict exactly how they will behave, so there are no surprises from one season to next.”