Searching for resistance

The purpose of pre-breeding is to adapt the available breeding material in terms of resistance and yield to changing environmental conditions. To obtain the genetic diversity needed for this process, pre-breeders like Klaus Oldach cross exotic material, which comes from such sources as gene banks, with their own breeding material.

Pre-breeding requires a variety of steps and multiple backcrossing”, said pre-breeder Klaus Oldach. “The exotic material from the gene bank does indeed contain desired individual traits. But it mostly contains disruptive characteristics like inadequate standing power, excessive height, fine-grained qualities or low yields.”

For this reason, the keys to success include both the quality of the available breeding material and the selection of the exotic material used in crossbreeding. The gene bank of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) contains more than 22,000 barley seed samples.

Video: Pre-Breeding explained

“We have a world of choice at our fingertips and usually don't know which seed sample has the resistance we're looking for,” Oldach said. The descriptions included with the seed samples in the gene bank generally contain only geographic and time-related information — things like where and when the sample was collected. To facilitate obtaining more detailed information from the gene bank, KWS has joined forces with other seed-breeding companies in a research project called SHAPE.

Led by the IPK, the interdisciplinary project is conducting research into structural genome diversity for barley breeding. The project is being funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research. It's also being supported by the Helmholtz Center Munich, the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Golm, KWS and six other seed-breeding companies.

During the SHAPE project, plants from the gene bank as well as their entire genetic makeup are being fully compared for the very first time and their genetic diversity is being systematically documented. Thanks to SHAPE, breeders will be able to search for relevant information in a more targeted manner and more quickly in the future. The project has already entered its second phase, with work scheduled to be concluded by January 2023.

During this second project phase, KWS is working with the other participating companies and institutions to test 1,400 barley accessions — that is, local species and current types — in the field for three years. “We're monitoring the behavior of each type, how it develops in the field under realistic conditions and whether it's resistant to things like mildew, leaf rust or viruses,” Oldach said.

Under the official valuation keys, the plant material is analyzed and all the collected information is added to the IPK’s gene bank. The information will then be used to facilitate future research and breeding.

The importance of the PAN Genome

Most of the genes are identical in all varieties of barley. This so-called Core Genome is for example responsible for the primary metabolism. Barley also has a Dispensible Genome, a series of genes that are specific to a particular barley plant. In landraces, these genes arose as adaptation to environmental conditions. Core Genome and Dispensible Genome together make the PAN Genome. It represents genetic diversity and is a key factor in breeding.

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