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24 April, 2017 - 11:18 By Kate Sweeney

Earlham steers new biodiversity era in Colombia and creates satnav for bread wheat

Scientists are embarking a major project to characterise Colombia’s plant and animal life, from densely rich cloud forests to little-seen museum collections.

Colombia is a megadiverse country, home to nearly 10 per cent of the planet’s total biodiversity and almost 20 per cent of its plant diversity. Over half is covered by forest, while wetlands and vast tropical grassland add to the mix.

Record numbers of rare species abound including around 100 endangered mammals, 34 species of endangered hummingbird and 2,500 plant species in danger of extinction.

Federica Di Palma, director of science at the Norwich-based Earlham Institute, has helped form a network of Colombian and UK scientists to collaborate on research. She said: “As well as being a source of wonder, the abundance of life in Colombia is essential to help end hunger and malnutrition and to achieve food security.

“If biodiversity is lost, so is the ability to adapt to challenges like population growth and climate change.”

The new network will help build Colombia’s research capacity, an opportunity made possible by the peace deal with the FARC guerilla group. As well as characterising the country’s biodiversity, research is needed to demonstrate the economic value of natural resources and to develop the bioeconomy.

Some of the most remote and richly biodiverse areas of the country were under control of FARC and inaccessible to researchers. There are now fewer restrictions to conduct experiments in the field.

Just last year a new species of golden frog was discovered in the high Andes and further discoveries might now be possible. Field experiments are also needed to understand the threats to biodiversity so that effective policies can be put in place to curb them.

UK institutions will provide access to technology, such as advanced genetic sequencing, as well as expertise via an exchange programme, shared posts and workshops.

Research projects will help to establish species’ conservation status, improve crop breeding to make farming more efficient and assess socio-economic challenges associated with biodiversity.

By increasing crop yields on existing farmland and using mixed farming systems, the impetus for further deforestation can be minimised. For example, planting legumes with other crops increases the availability of nitrogen, while mixed crop-livestock-forage-tree systems maximise the use of resources.

Making the most of genetic diversity in crops adapted to the local environment can boost yields and disease resistance.

In remote post-conflict regions, coca for the illegal drugs trade was a major cash crop. Scientific collaboration and social reform could help ensure that cacao, the raw material to produce chocolate, provides one stable alternative for farmers.

Global prices are increasing making it an attractive alternative. Research findings can be used to protect trees from disease.

Sat nav for bread wheat uncovers hidden genes
Scientists from the Earlham Institute have also created the most accurate navigation system for the bread wheat genome to date – allowing academics and breeders to analyse its genes more easily than ever before.

Wheat is one of the world’s most important staple cereals but is also the most complex. Three sub-genomes together contain around five times more DNA than the human genome. Nearly 80 per cent of this genetic material is repetitive, making it even harder to sequence and analyse.

Now, harnessing advanced sequencing technology and computational approaches, Earlham scientists, with colleagues at the John Innes Centre, have published the world’s most complete picture of the wheat genome. It includes the location and detailed annotation of over 100,000 wheat genes. More than a fifth of these were completely absent from earlier assemblies, or found only as fragments.

Senior author Matthew Clark, head of technology development at the institute said: “We applied the latest sequencing and bioinformatic techniques we have developed at our institute to the huge and complex wheat genome. We were able to achieve the best results anyone had seen, including uncovering previously hidden genes.

“Moreover, all our methods are open, and available for anyone to use. This is critical as wheat DNA varies across the world, which is key to its success in different environments.

We have already started to sequence many varieties of UK wheat using these methods, and we hope others will sequence the genomes of wheat important in their country.”

More than two billion people worldwide rely on wheat as a staple food, making it a vital crop for global food security. However, yield increases have stagnated since the mid-1990s.

A better map of the wheat genome is essential for breaking the deadlock. It will help reveal the location of important traits that can be bred into elite varieties.

It was recently announced that The Earlham Institute, based at Norwich Research Park, will receive £26.6 million from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to support its genomic research.

The institute, which was founded in 2009, is carrying out its Designing Future Wheat programme alongside the neighbouring John Innes Centre, which also received £78m funding, and Rothamsted Research to combine expertise on understanding the complex genome.

Kiss Communications

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