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Investigating the balancing act between yield and nutrient content in wheat

Primary Supervisor: Dr Philippa Borrill, School of Biosciences

Secondary supervisor: Dr Daniel Gibbs

PhD project title: Investigating the balancing act between yield and nutrient content in wheat

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

Wheat is one of the world’s most important crops providing over 20 % of calories eaten by humankind. Our recent work sequencing the wheat genome (International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, 2018) and developing populations for functional gene studies (Krasileva et al., 2017) can now accelerate our understanding of the biological mechanisms controlling wheat growth and development. This knowledge will enable breeding of improved wheat varieties to feed the world’s growing population.

Wheat is not only an important source of calories but also of protein: wheat provides more protein to the human diet than meat. Therefore, when we aim to increase food production of staple crops such as wheat we must also consider the protein content. This is challenging because there is a negative trade-off between yield and protein content so that when yield is increased, generally protein content decreases. This trade-off occurs during the period of grain development when the plant may either continue to photosynthesise which could increase yield, or the plant may start to senesce, allowing nutrients to be remobilised from vegetative tissues into the developing grain and thus increase protein content. Understanding the molecular mechanisms controlling senescence and nutrient remobilisation will allow wheat varieties with enhanced yield and protein content to be developed.

Despite the importance of senescence and nutrient remobilisation in wheat, our knowledge about the molecular mechanisms governing these processes is limited. A PhD project in my lab would capitalise on the latest developments in wheat genomic and genetic resources to functionally characterise these mechanisms, with a potential impact on the global wheat breeding industry. The project could focus on a number of areas:

  • Investigating the functions of key transcription factors which we have identified to likely play a role in senescence, but whose role in nutrient remobilisation is as yet unknown.
  • Investigating the communication between the leaf and the developing grain, to improve nutrient remobilisation from the leaf and the allocation of nutrients into the grain.
  • Investigating the role of nutrient transporters expressed specifically during nutrient remobilisation from the leaf into the grain.

All projects would use the latest resources which we have developed including the wheat genome sequence (International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, 2018), gene networks (Ramirez-Gonzalez et al., 2018) and mutant populations which allow knock-outs of genes of interest (Krasileva et al., 2017). These resources will accelerate fundamental biological discoveries directly in an important crop species, which will enable a rapid impact on food security. Projects will provide training in a wide range of skills including molecular biology, plant physiology, genomics and bioinformatics.

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

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

This project will use a wide-range of cutting-edge molecular biology, genetic, genomic and bioinformatic approaches to investigate the molecular mechanisms regulating senescence and nutrient remobilisation in wheat. Depending on the project, the candidate will gain experience in analysing big data (gene networks and genomics/transcriptomics), generating mutant and/or transgenic lines to investigate gene function, plant husbandry, marker design, genotyping, gene expression analysis (qPCR) and carrying out physiological and molecular phenotypic evaluation. This project will offer the opportunity to integrate wet lab experience with computational biology which will stand the PhD candidate in good stead for a range of career opportunities.

Contact: Dr Philippa Borrill, University of Birmingham