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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 January 2007, 11:21 GMT
UK crop science gets 13m boost
Broccoli (Image: BBC)
Green and good: scientists hope to unlock broccoli's genetic secrets
British crop scientists have been awarded 13.3m for a series of research projects, including one aimed at keeping broccoli greener for longer.

The University of Warwick team will analyse DNA from the vegetable in an attempt to improve its shelf life.

Other schemes include an attempt to develop crops which are able to withstand attacks from insects.

In all, 18 projects will get grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Genetics

The University of Warwick researchers have been awarded almost 500,000 to identify genes in broccoli that will extend its shelf life and maintain its nutritional value for longer.

"One of the problems is that it actually turns yellow in the fridge quite quickly," said David Pink, from Warwick HRI, University of Warwick.

"So what we are going to do in this project is to look at the genetics of the vegetable and, in effect, come up with a DNA profile of what makes a good broccoli that stays green and does not go floppy."

He told reporters at a briefing in Birmingham that the research would also look at how the popular vegetable could keep its nutritional value for longer.

"We already have some evidence that nutrients start dropping as soon as the heads have been harvested; about half of the vitamin C content is lost after about three days.

"What we are also going to try to look at is if we can use genetics to retain the nutrients in the head. So, as well as looking good, it will be doing good as well."

Pest control

Another project that has received funding from the BBSRC will look at wheat plants' resistance to insect pests.

Aphids on a plant stem (Image: BBSRC)
In the UK, we have not had a very serious problem to date but as we undergo climate change and get warmer winters, pest problems will increase
Dr John Gatehouse,
University of Durham
The research will focus on the current two main threats to the cereal crop: wheat bulb flies that attack the roots, and cereal aphids that tackle the tops of plants.

"If you think about plant and insect interaction, what we have is almost like an arms race between the two," suggested John Gatehouse, from the University of Durham's Institute of Plant and Microbial Science.

"Plants do have a number of strategies to defend themselves," he said, "but when we selected crop plants, we generally selected plants that were not particularly well defended because many of the defensive chemicals were actually toxic to us as well.

"One strand of our programme is to try to work out what resistance wheat plants can put up."

The consortium of scientists from the Durham and Newcastle universities, and the UK government's Central Science Laboratory plan to identify these defence genes, enabling them to be used in wheat breeding programmes.

Dr Gatehouse added that the insects were also locked in a battle to overcome any defence mechanisms used by the crop, and the team would also attempt to find a way to counter this.

"In the UK, we have not had a very serious problem to date but as we undergo climate change and get warmer winters, pest problems will increase."

GM technology

When questioned whether their work would require delving into the field of genetically modified (GM) crops, the researchers told reporters it would not.

Talking about his project, Professor Pink said: "It will all be using natural variations that are available in broccoli, or we could also go and look for genes that are currently in cabbage or cauliflower because they are [in the same plant group] but are not in the broccoli gene pool."

However, he did say that there was a GM option available to his team.

"We would use a different approach where we would actually shut down the response of the flower head to ethylene, one of the gases that causes the yellowing."

"But we are not going down that route because GM is not acceptable at the moment, and not acceptable to our plant breeding partner," he said.

Professor Julia Goodfellow, BBSRC chief executive, said the grants were awarded to ensure the UK remained home to some of the best plant science in the world.

"We want to harness this and exploit it to address some of the pressing issues we face," she explained.

"[Our] aim is to support basic crop research that will produce outcomes to make farming more sustainable and able to meet the challenges of a changing environment."




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