Genomics for hardier plants

NSW DPI technical officer, Ray Cowley, and senior research scientist, David Luckett, are part of a team at Wagga Wagga developing an anthracnose-resistant lupin, without ever having to expose plants to the disease.
NSW DPI technical officer, Ray Cowley, and senior research scientist, David Luckett, are part of a team at Wagga Wagga developing an anthracnose-resistant lupin, without ever having to expose plants to the disease.

Genetic ‘signposts’ used in research are helping to breed crops more capable of handling drought, climate change, diseases and pests.

These stresses are challenging Australian crops at an ever increasing rate and new techniques are allowing breeders to tackle problems more rapidly and effectively, according to Dr David Luckett, NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) senior research scientist at Wagga Wagga.

“With all the uncertainty attached to climatic conditions now, farmers can at least be assured that research continues that will be of benefit to them when things come good again,” Dr Luckett said.

Dr Luckett heads a team using a new field of genetics, called genomics, to tackle lupin breeding at the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Institute.

He said genomics was not genetic modification (GM); instead it used existing variation in crops’ natural DNA to give signposts to the important genes for disease resistance, yield and grain quality.

“Genomics is enabling us to breed disease-resistance in lupins without using GM and without all the controversy,” Dr Luckett said.

Dr Luckett said this work would help in the fight against diseases such as anthracnose, which is not found in NSW lupin crops but is a major threat and could arrive at any time.

“We are developing an anthracnose-resistant version of the successful lupin variety ‘Jindalee’ without ever having to expose the plants to the actual disease.

“The laboratory procedure is quicker and cheaper than growing the plants in the field, and can be done at any time of the year.

“This exciting field of work allows researchers to identify numerous variants in the DNA of a crop plant. The variants are then used to make a detailed map of the crop’s DNA.

“The genetic variants or signposts we look for are called DNA markers, which are similar to those used in human medicine to identify undesirable genes, such as a tendency towards breast cancer, or high blood pressure.

“DNA markers are like illuminated signposts in the genetic fog - find the signpost and you know how far away the gene you want is, even if you can't see it.

“If the closest signpost is there in a plant’s DNA, then most likely the gene you want will be there too.

“Genomics will allow breeding programs to be much more responsive, allowing breeders to select for important genes that are otherwise hard or expensive to detect.

“The new approach produces better varieties faster, and allows the breeding program to take-up new challenges and make progress more rapidly,” Dr Luckett said.

NSW DPI is extending their involvement in genomics research to cover other legumes such as chickpeas, faba beans, field peas and narrow-leaf lupins.

This work will involve other departments of agriculture across Australia, plus Murdoch University in Perth, using federal funding from the Australian Research Council.
The Albus lupin breeding program at Wagga Wagga is part-funded by growers through the Grains Research and Development Corporation.