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Breeding for Climate Change Resilience in Brassicas – Discovering Novel Traits for Resilience to Stressful Growing

Primary Supervisor: Professor Jim Monaghan, HAU

Secondary supervisor:Dr Andrew Beacham, HAU, Dr Guy Barker, University of Warwick

PhD project title: Breeding for Climate Change Resilience in Brassicas – Discovering Novel Traits for Resilience to Stressful Growing Conditions

University of Registration: Harper Adams University

Project outline:

We need to breed crops that are resilient to climate change. Climate change in temperate climates is predicted to be characterised by dramatic environmental conditions such as drought or heavy rain. The effects of extreme short-term weather variability on crop production are serious (Thornton et al., 2014). Resilience towards short-term (transient) environmental stress is therefore a key target for crop improvement and new genotypes with resilience to a range of abiotic stresses will be required to maintain regular supplies of crops. Phenotyping under likely stresses experienced by crops in the field is critical in identifying pathways to crop improvement (Thoen et al., 2017).

The Monaghan Group at HAU has previously collaborated with Dr Barker at UoW to develop high throughput phenotyping assays for transient abiotic stresses and have identified resilience to drought, waterlogging, high salinity, heat and freezing in B. oleracea populations (Beacham et al., 2017). We have identified resilience to multiple short-term seedling stage single stresses in diverse B. oleracea crop types. We used a population of approximately 70 genetically fixed, genotyped lines of the VeGIN B. oleracea Diversity Fixed Foundation Set (DFFS) that will also be utilised in this research. Whilst there was an overall low correlation between different abiotic stress responses, a highlight from the study was that a number of lines demonstrated resilience to multiple individual stress types.

What we don’t yet know is why some lines are more resilient to these transient stresses than others. The response is under genetic control, but the mechanisms mediating the phenotype are yet to be discovered. It is this area that the student will address, leading to novel observations on the physiological and genetic basis of the desired traits – which will be key to plant breeders and plant scientists working to adapt crop production to an increasingly changing climate (Beacham et al., 2018).

We hypothesise that the lines with stress resilience phenotypes for both drought and waterlogging maintain a relatively higher growth rate during the stress period and/or the recovery phase and that the resilience phenotype persists during the establishment phase in crop production.

Year 1

  • The DFFS panel will be phenotyped for drought and waterlogging resilience at seedling establishment (+5 leaves) and main growth (+10 leaves) to establish the range of response and identify extreme lines for both stresses. In addition, seed from key lines will be bulked for subsequent years using an adapted methodology from (Beacham et al, 2017).

Year 2 & 3

  • 10 extreme lines will be used to investigate a number of whole plant physiological parameters. Parameters will be recorded pre-, during- and post-stress recovery stages. This will include relative growth rates assessed using imaging approaches, photosynthetic parameters, stomatal density and conductance, and leaf water potential. Hormone assays (e.g. ABA and ethylene) will be guided by preliminary assessments in Year 1. Due to the environmental effect on the phenotype, experiments will be repeated over time.
  • Advanced molecular techniques including qRT-PCR transcriptome and NGS analysis will be utilised to identify targeted genes (e.g. hormone pathways, photosynthesis). If relevant, the student will utilise CRISPR technology to verify gene function.


  1. Beacham, A.M., Hand, P., Pink, D.A. and Monaghan, J.M., 2017. Analysis of Brassica oleracea early stage abiotic stress responses reveals tolerance in multiple crop types and for multiple sources of stress. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 97(15), pp.5271-5277.
  2. Beacham, A.M., Hand, P., Barker, G.C., Denby, K.J., Teakle, G.R., Walley, P.G. and Monaghan, J.M., 2018. Addressing the threat of climate change to agriculture requires improving crop resilience to short-term abiotic stress. Outlook on Agriculture, 47(4), pp.270-276.
  3. Lin, K.H., Chen, L.F.O., Li, S.D. and Lo, H.F., 2015. Comparative proteomic analysis of cauliflower under high temperature and flooding stresses. Scientia Horticulturae, 183, pp.118-129.
  4. Thoen, M.P., Davila Olivas, N.H., Kloth, K.J., Coolen, S., Huang, P.P., Aarts, M.G., Bac‐Molenaar, J.A., Bakker, J., Bouwmeester, H.J., Broekgaarden, C. and Bucher, J., 2017. Genetic architecture of plant stress resistance: multi‐trait genome‐wide association mapping. New Phytologist, 213(3), pp.1346-1362.
  5. Thornton, P.K., Ericksen, P.J., Herrero, M. and Challinor, A.J., 2014. Climate variability and vulnerability to climate change: a review. Global change biology, 20(11), pp.3313-3328.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Sustainable Agriculture and Food: Plant and Crop Science

      Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

      • Plant phenotyping assays utilising abiotic stress.
      • Plant physiological measurements including photosynthetic parameters, stomatal conductance and density, leaf water potential.
      • Plant image analysis using ImageJ software.
      • qRT-PCR of target genes.
      • NGS analysis
      • CRISPR
      • Plant hormone analysis

      Contact: Professor Jim Monaghan, HAU