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Whealbi: Wheat and barley legacy for breeding improvement

Christian Huyghe, Deputy Scientific Director of Agriculture at INRA, launched the Whealbi project (WHEAt and barley Legacy for Breeding Improvement) on 11 March in the presence of Grégoire Berthe, from the Céréales Vallée competitive cluster, and Michel Beckert, representative from the French Ministry for Research. The project is coordinated by INRA’s Clermont-Ferrand centre and brings together the best European laboratories specialised in wheat and barley. It covers a range of areas, from genomics to agricultural sciences, and aims to increase wheat and barley production in Europe by selecting new productive varieties that are better suited to environmentally-friendly agricultural systems using limited inputs.

A barley spike in a field near Sourcieux Les Mines. © INRA, LHOPITAL Marie-Christine
Updated on 04/03/2014
Published on 03/24/2014

Cereals are a staple food item for people and animals and are an important component of green chemistry. They are a major factor in the development of an independent, sustainable economy and agricultural system, and are grown on over half of Europe’s cultivated farmland. Europe is the top producer in the world of these two cereal species and a key player in global debates. By 2050, worldwide demand is expected to increase by 40–50%. If farmland hectarage is to remain stable, per-hectare yields will have to rise to meet this demand, while the environmental impact of farming practices (greenhouse gas emissions, nitrate and pesticide use) and reliance on non-renewable resources (water, energy) must be reduced.

Yield growth, which has risen by 1% since 1950, is slowing around the world and even nearing 0% in some European countries where yields are already very high. To maintain its place as a major agricultural region and play a role in the global food challenge, Europe must look to innovation to develop high-performance and sustainable varieties and farming systems.

An integrated approach to genomics in cropping systems

To tackle this agricultural and environmental challenge, Whealbi aims to rally all scientific disciplines using an integrated approach.

A large selection of genetic resources conserved in gene banks in Europe ¬– including those at INRA’s Clermont-Ferrand Centre for Cereal Genetic Resources – will be analysed through the sequencing of the expressed genome (exome). This will be the first time anywhere in the world that 1000 types of wheat and barley will be analysed. These resources will then be evaluated in fields from Scotland to Israel to see how well they adapt to different European environments, as well as on precise phenotyping platforms. The data generated will be organised in databases and made available to the international scientific community. For this project, partners will use the plethora of data to study such phenomena as selection signatures at the genome level (location of chromosome regions enabling genetic improvement), associations between the polymorphism of DNA and adaptive traits, and the search for potential variants for plant improvement. IT tools will be developed to exploit the database and assist decisions on varietal selection. Experiments using new genetic constructions will be carried out in innovative agricultural systems. These include using low levels of polluting inputs, such as nitrates and pesticides; reduced tillage to promote reduced energy use, better carbon sequestration in organic matter and erosion prevention; or organic farming methods.

The results will be communicated to a wide range of users working in research, gene selection, agricultural sciences and agricultural organisations. They will underscore the benefits so the European Union can maintain its ranking as the top worldwide producer of wheat and barley and adapt its agricultural systems to society’s health and environmental demands.