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Seventy years of crop research at Warwick’s Wellesbourne campus celebrated at industry event

  • Over 100 scientists, industry experts and employees past and present attended the celebration event held at Warwick Crop Centre
  • Scientists at Wellesbourne have been responsible for large numbers of significant developments in crop science over the last 70 years
  • Originally the National Vegetable Research Station (NVRS), then Horticulture Research International (HRI), the facility is now part of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick

Industry specialists, researchers and staff – past and present – gathered at Warwick’s Wellesbourne campus this week (Wednesday 18 December) to mark 70 years of crop research on the site.

Wellesbourne 70th anniversary eventThe meeting heard from a range of speakers who relayed past successes and described work on future developments. Invited keynote speaker and expert in food policy, Professor Tim Lang, spoke about the importance of vegetables in the UK and Sue Kennedy from Elsoms Seeds gave a commercial perspective on vegetable genetics and breeding – past, present and future.

Professor Rosemary Collier, an entomologist and one of the lead researchers at Warwick Crop Centre, said: “Over the last 70 years research at Wellesbourne has produced large numbers of scientific advances which have helped combat agricultural pests and diseases, made crops more resilient to UK growing conditions and have improved the quality of vegetable varieties for consumers.

“Looking to the future, we are now tackling new issues brought about by climate change. Increases in temperature and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events are bringing with them more challenging growing conditions and farmers are already experiencing greater difficulty in managing their crops and tackling pests and diseases, including influxes of new species. We need scientific research to help to continue to deliver reliable food supplies”.

“Consumers are also becoming more engaged with their dietary choices and the demand for plant products is rising. Research on vegetables has the potential to develop new food plants for the UK market as well as leading to varieties which are resistant to pests and diseases or better adapted to low input production systems, thereby reducing the need for inputs like pesticides and fertilisers.”

Speaking at the event, guest keynote speaker Professor Tim Lang said: “Horticulture could and should be good news for the UK at a time when issues like food security and climate change should be making people think more about their food choices. Places like the Crop Centre at Warwick are valuable resources which could help the UK lead on increasing vegetable production.”

The research station at Wellesbourne was established after World War II with the aim of researching and establishing better and more efficient methods of vegetable production in the UK. The National Vegetable Research Station as it was called, was originally funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF). The 113ha site at Wellesbourne was acquired in September 1949.

Dr James Philp at Wellesbourne It was the first director of the NVRS, Dr James Philp, who in the 1950s instigated the use of statistical data as a research tool at Wellesbourne – with the introduction of the industry-renowned GENSTAT statistical package. Since then the research station has been the site of numerous scientific advances in plant breeding, disease resistance and pest control, including:

1950s  

The cause of silvering in beetroot identified

The principles of irrigation timing to optimise application established

The UK watercress industry was saved from ruin by the identification of the crook root pathogen and the development of novel control strategies

1960s

A canker-resistant parsnip bred

The first F1 hybrid vegetable produced – a sprout variety

Varieties of lettuce developed with resistance to downy mildew and lettuce root aphid

Cauliflower scheduling systems developed

Quarantine Field established for study of soilborne diseases

1970s

Year round onion production developed and onion neck rot control method identified defined (Granted Queen's Award for Technological Achievement, 1977)

Causes in plant-to-plant variability in crops quantified

Threshold levels of seed-borne inoculum to control halo blight of beans established

The first national NPK fertiliser recommendations for 23 vegetable crops established

1980s 

Cause of carrot cavity spot identified

First pest forecasts for carrot and cabbage root fly infestations made

National Listing of Edmund as a white haricot bean variety for UK food production

The first computer-based Decision Support System (WELL_N) for site-specific N fertiliser advice introduced

Starter fertiliser techniques developed and introduced

1990s

F1 hybrid leeks released

First diagnostic tests for carrot cavity spot developed

Mild-onion germplasm developed

Lettuce big vein successfully controlled and germplasm for lettuce multi-resistance to downy mildew released

Development of the mycoparasite Coniothyrium minitans as a biological control agent for Sclerotinia disease – now a commercial product ‘Contans’ marketed by Bayer

Arabidopsis downy mildew provides seminal insights into the molecular basis and evolution of innate immunity in plants

Carrot breeding lines with partial resistance to carrot fly were sold to seed companies for variety production.

Protocols for producing low-nitrate lettuce introduced to meet EU legislation

2000 – present:

New diagnostics developed for key soilborne plant diseases including cavity spot of carrot, Fusarium diseases of onion, Narcissus, lettuce and column stocks, foot rot diseases of peas

New onion lines with high resistance to Fusarium identified and being developed by Hazera

Defra-funded Vegetable Genetic Improvement Network initiated which has led to identification of multiple beneficial traits across lettuce, carrot, onion and Brassica as well as contributing resources and data to multiple UKRI projects

Establishment of the VeGIN network linking academia to industry to speed up knowledge transfer. Its success due to previous WHRI breeding programs.

Genes responsible for seed vigour in Brassica oleracea identified providing potential for the improvement of seed performance in breeding programmes

Use of the patented technique of drum priming, invented at Wellesbourne (1980-1990s), is now rapidly expanding to improve horticultural seed quality

Gene for resistance to Turnip mosaic virus identified in brassicas, resistance mechanism patented by Warwick and being exploited by Syngenta.

Resistance to Turnip yellows virus identified in diploid brassicas and incorporated in to re-synthesised oilseed rape; four international seed companies investing in exploiting the resistance in collaboration with Warwick.

Two BBSRC collaborative projects with Indian colleagues on resistance to Turnip mosaic virus and white blister rust in Brassica juncea.

Revival of haricot bean breeding in the UK with National Listing of Capulet (the first of several genetically improved descendants from Edmund)

Partner in international Brassica genome sequencing projects

Deposit of UK Vegetable Gene Bank material to Svalbard Global Seed Vault

AHDB Pest Bulletin established

 

Professor Lorenzo Frigerio, Head of the School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick, said: “Scientists at this specialist research facility at Wellesbourne have been delivering world-class, industry-changing applied science for the past 70 years and there is no doubt that the UK needs and recognises the value of this type of work.

“The University of Warwick continues to drive forward pioneering research into some of the UK’s most valuable vegetable crops and also to look for new opportunities in markets which are interesting for the UK’s growers and consumers.”

-ENDS-

Notes to editors:

Wellesbourne – a potted history

1949 - Established after World War II with the aim of researching and establishing better and more efficient methods of vegetable production in the UK, the National Vegetable Research Station as it was originally funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The 113ha site at Wellesbourne was acquired in September 1949. The original site had no electricity, no running water and only a bridle path to reach the three run-down farm cottages.

The first new building – a second hand shed which acted as the office, lab and canteen for the six staff – was erected in January 1950.

1959 - Prince Philip Building was formally opened housing specialist laboratories, library, lecture hall and admin offices.

1973 - David Lowe Building was added to the south-west wing of the Prince Philip Building to provide additional laboratory and office space.

1980 - The UK Vegetable Gene Bank was built at Wellesbourne following donations to an OXFAM special appeal.

1990 - Horticulture Research International (HRI) was established (merger between AFRC Institute of Horticultural Research (operating on sites at Wellesbourne, Littlehampton, East Malling and Wye) and the Agricultural Development Advisory Service (ADAS) Experimental Horticulture Stations (EHSs) at Efford, Kirton and Stockbridge House).

1998 – Terry Pryce Building was opened.

2004 - Warwick HRI was formed on 1 April 2004 following the integration of HRI sites at Wellesbourne and Kirton with The University of Warwick.

2010 - School of Life Sciences was formed following merger of Warwick HRI and Department of Biological Sciences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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