Solving the big breeding puzzles

Some of the big puzzles in animal and plant breeding are being solved as a result of the efforts of NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) biometricians.

A statistical package known as ASReml, first developed to analyse data from the crop variety evaluation program in southern NSW, is currently being used in 35 countries, by scientists from 235 institutions.

Clients include Monsanto, various international food breeding programs CSIRO Plant Industries and agricultural research and development organisations.

In Australia, ASReml is used to collate and predict varietal performance from more than 500 grain variety trials conducted each year. It is also used in the sugar industry, which says it has led to new varieties being released earlier and greater genetic gain, adding an estimated $20 million annually in value to the industry in Australia.

Research Leader for DPI Biometrics, Dr Brian Cullis, says the package helps farmers, breeders and crop variety evaluators obtain the most reliable predictions of genetic value for a range of crops grown in different environments.

“It means farmers can get the best information available about performance of varieties in their own location and make an informed decision.”

Developed in the early 1990s by Dr Cullis, leading DPI biometrician Dr Arthur Gilmour and Professor Robin Thompson from Rothamsted Research in the UK, ASReml arose from a need to analyse12 years of data from 1,071 wheat variety trials.

The resulting meta-analysis established and quantified interactions between acid tolerance, crop maturity and sowing date of wheat varieties in southern NSW.

According to Dr Cullis, “the strength of the ASReml project is that it can implement up-to-date and efficient  statistical methodogies quickly and make them available to the user.

“Today, researchers routinely use ASReml to undertake meta-analyses of data in the agricultural, biological, medical and biological sciences.”

ASReml is a joint project of NSW DPI and Rothamsted Research and was freely available from 1996 to 2002. It is now sold commercially – a move Dr Cullis says has facilitated significant improvements in the system.

Recently a new version of the package, ASReml 2.0, was released after three years of testing and development. It included input from  9 PhD students.

Rothamsted Research is regarded as the UK’s premier agriculture research institute, and credits ASReml with having a major impact on ensuring science quality within the organisation.

In the last decade, 30 scientific articles have been published on ASREml. At the last meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Breeding and Genetics, ASReml was cited in 41% of the papers presented.