Pre-breeding happens upstream of breeding, explains Sylvie Cloutier, a research scientist (genetics), with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa Research Development Centre. It involves identifying useful genes in species other than cultivated wheat and transferring them into cultivated wheat.
Geneticists generally do pre-breeding work because breeders don’t have the time or resources. Cloutier says geneticists are generally associated with one or two breeders. So, if those breeders weren’t interested in the material the geneticists were producing, it was never used. Cloutier wanted to find a way to make pre-breeding outcomes available to a larger number of breeders.
“We don’t need to have small pre-breeding programs everywhere,” she says. “The idea is to put a lot of energy into one pre-breeding program rather than dividing it into multiple little ones.”
She set out to establish a Canada-wide pre-breeding platform that will compile useful DNA markers and germplasm that carries new disease resistance genes and make those available to all Canadian wheat breeding programs to help them quickly respond to arising disease threats.
“It’s about giving breeders and researchers the ability to look at the database, select material they’re interested in, and access it,” she says.
She’s developing a database that will contain all the relevant data collected during the evaluation stages. Every year, she distributes material to different nurseries across the country, where it’s evaluated for disease resistance. Cloutier collates the data and adds it to the searchable database.
“If a researcher is only interested in one disease, they can search the database and find out what material is resistant to that disease,” she says.
For now, half of the platform’s work is focused exclusively on Fusarium head blight (FHB) resistance while the other is looking at three fungal diseases (powdery mildew, leaf rust, and stripe rust).
“What we’re trying to do is improve resistance to these diseases using material that is a little bit less adapted,” she says. They’re identifying disease resistance genes in exotic material, some of which may not even be in the same species, and moving them into material that more closely resembles wheat.
“The idea is not to give breeders varieties,” she explains. “Giving them something that is semi-adapted means it’s going to look like wheat, but it’s not going to be finished varieties. The resistance genes will be there, so they can focus on the other aspects of variety development.”
Some of her semi-adapted material is now in advanced generation. They have fixed material they’re going to start testing in the field this summer.
This Wheat Cluster project received funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the AgriScience Program, which is part of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal, provincial, territorial initiative. The project also received funding from Alberta Wheat Commission, Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission, Manitoba Crop Alliance, and Western Grains Research Foundation.
The pre-breeding platform is still in the development phase, but Cloutier would eventually like to transfer most of the germplasm to Plant Gene Resource Canada in Saskatoon. She describes the platform as the foundation of something bigger.
She’s received funding from Genome Canada to delve much more deeply into the genomics of wild species. “In the past, one would identify a gene in a wild relative and you would start to do crossing and back crossing until you got the gene into a new line,” she explains. “Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Maybe if we have better knowledge, we can use a much more targeted approach. We’re figuring out how we can design these crosses to ensure the outcome is going to be useful.”
For the project profile, CLICK HERE.