The true power of improved genetics

So, perhaps it is time to take a look at what scientists around the world are trying to achieve, where the development of the science of genetic development is concerned.

Let’s start with the world of plants. There are three main crops responsible for supplying all the plant-based energy and protein required in the world today. These are consumed directly by humans or fed to livestock to produce animal protein.

The crops in question are: wheat, maize (maize) and soybeans. Given Northern Ireland’s mild climate, it is wheat that farmers and consumers will be most familiar with.

The development of new wheat varieties continues rapidly throughout the world

So here comes the shocking fact: analysis of the first type of untapped genetic potential of wheat shows that global productivity is only half of what it could be!

An international team of experts led by the UK’s Rothamsted Research says this “genetic yield gap” can be closed by developing wheat varieties adapted to each region.

In other words, by utilizing the vast genetic variation available in global and historical wheat gene banks with modern techniques such as rapid breeding and gene editing.

Dr Mikhail Semenov and Dr Nimai Senapati, who led this study, define a crop’s “genetic yield potential” as the highest yield achievable with an idealized variety.

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A plant with an optimal genome allows it to capture water, sunlight and nutrients more efficiently than others.

Dr Semenov said: “Given the inconsistencies between existing wheat varieties, genetics and local wheat growing conditions, it is only halfway average in terms of yield.

“Global wheat production can be doubled by genetic improvement of local wheat varieties without increasing the global wheat area.”

Using available data on the contribution of different genes to individual plant traits such as size, shape, metabolism and growth, the researchers ran millions of computer simulations to design the “perfect” wheat plants adapted to their local environment.

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When compared with the performance of locally adapted cultivars, they found that in all cases current wheat cultivars underperformed in terms of grain yield, with a clear “genetic yield gap” between reality and potential.

According to Dr. Senapati, closing the genetic fertility gap would go a long way toward feeding the growing world population and reduce pressure to convert wild habitats into cropland.

Using a state-of-the-art wheat model called Sirius, the team first calculated the potential yields of 28 commonly used wheat varieties grown in several regions of the world and assumed the best possible growing conditions for each. .

This yielded less than four tonnes in Australia and Kazakhstan – compared to 14 tonnes of wheat produced per hectare in New Zealand.

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Next, they developed “idealized” landraces within their model that optimized several plant traits that aided productivity and whose underlying genetics allowed them to be improved by plant breeders.

The simulations were based on extensive information about the natural genetic variation that underlies traits.

These include tolerance and response to drought and heat stresses, size and orientation of light-trapping upper leaves, and timing of key life cycle events.

The results showed that by optimizing these key traits, genetic fertility gaps could range from 30 to 70% across countries, with a global average genetic fertility gap of 51%. Therefore, global wheat production can be doubled by exploiting the existing genetic yield gap to achieve global food security in a sustainable manner.

“Not surprisingly, countries with the lowest current fertility have the most to gain from closing genetic fertility gaps,” Dr Senapati said.

“That is, in these countries, where the average genetic productivity difference is 40-50%, but a large part of the global wheat crop, such advances will have a significant impact on global wheat production due to the larger areas of wheat cultivation. “

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, sheep production has been a major focus of genetic research for many years.

In fact, the myriad of data sources now available to Sheep Ireland enable the organization to achieve the role it was created to fulfill in 2009.

This was the key message delivered by Kevin McDermott, Manager of Sheep Ireland, in his presentation at EasyCare’s recent open night. The event was held at Campbell Tweed’s Co Antrim farm.

“Our aim is to provide balanced breeding objectives for the Irish sheep industry,” he said.

“The good news is that real-time data and facts that widen the net of data sources make this possible.

“For example, genetic assessments can be updated weekly. What makes this possible is the fact that Sheep Ireland is a centralized source of information for the entire Irish sheep industry.”

McDermott particularly highlighted the role that genomics plays in Ireland’s sheep sectors.

He further explained: “Being able to genotype sheep brings with it many benefits. At a very fundamental level, it allows you to check the pedigree of breeding stock.

“This is significant given that up to 8% of breeding ewes and lambs born in Ireland have been wrongly sired to date.

“However, genomics opens up many new opportunities to provide improved performance at the farm level.”

McDermott continued: “But none of this would be possible without increased buy-in from both pedigree and commercial sheep farmers in Ireland.”

A total of 8 breeding sheep societies now use the Sheep Ireland IT system to manage their flock books: Belclare, Beltex, Charollais, Galway, Irish Suffolk Sheep Society, Rouge de l’Ouest, Texel and Vendeen.

A Sheep Ireland representative also confirmed the benefits to be gained by farmers using the organisation’s new phone ‘app’.

In fact, it allows flock owners associated with Sheep Ireland to record information about their animals such as lambing and growth rates in almost real time.

Kevin McDermott re: “The new software allows farmers to reliably and accurately record and report data while in the field or in the barn.

“Gone are the days when footage was first recorded on paper and then uploaded to Sheep Ireland after returning to the farmer’s office computer. As a result, the margin of error is significantly reduced.”

The impact of Sheep Ireland’s continued progress in recent years has been significant.

The organization is charged with increasing the rate of genetic gain in the Irish sheep sector by identifying and promoting the use of rams with more profitable and sustainable genetics.

This has been achieved by collecting performance data from the best rams in the country and accessing their strengths and weaknesses using a genetic evaluation that is updated weekly to incorporate any new information.

The results of these genetic evaluations are then displayed in sales catalogs and a simple one-to-five star rating system online, allowing sheep farmers to make a more informed breeding decision when selecting their next ram.

Looking to the future, Sheep Ireland sees its role as part of Irish agriculture’s response to the challenge of global warming.

Specifically, the organization is currently working to develop an Estimated Breeding Value (EBV) associated with methane emissions for sheep.

Kevin McDermott again: “Again, genomics can play a role in this context.”

He concluded: “All work carried out by Sheep Ireland is independently verified. This approach gives sheep producers a very high level of confidence in the performance data we provide.”

Dairying is currently the largest area of ​​local agriculture.

There is growing recognition of the role that improved genetics will play in ensuring future sustainability for the dairy sector in Northern Ireland.

Technologies including the use of sexed sperm and embryo transfer are already making a significant difference in this regard.

Ivan Minford, Breeding Services Manager at Ai Services, tells the story: “AI adherence has always represented a very small investment relative to the overall costs involved in any dairy business. Feed, fertilizer and energy prices continue to rise exponentially.

“Furthermore, the development of effective breeding policies has always been the cornerstone of improved herd performance that will last for many generations.

“In monetary terms, the size of the initial investment required to make all of this happen is negligible compared to the scale of the benefits that accrue.”

He continued; “And it remains so. Ai Services has developed strong working relationships with the world’s leading breeding companies to provide elite dairy genetics at unbeatable prices for local dairy producers.

According to an Ai Services representative, investment in improved genetics will provide dairy farmers on two main levels: improved efficiency and profitability.

He further explained: “Genetics affect every aspect of cow performance: improved milk production, increased milk quality, longevity in the milking herd and improved health traits.

“Significantly, all of these factors combine to provide a smaller carbon footprint and improved sustainability for all dairy farming operations.”

Cow size has also been identified as a key factor in determining the carbon footprint of the entire dairy business.

“There is an opportunity to reduce cow size while maintaining overall animal performance,” Minford said.

So how does all this fit into the future development of agriculture in Northern Ireland?

Farming Minister Edwin Poots has set out his vision for the future of farm support in Northern Ireland.

Speaking at the Irish National Plowing Championships in Laois, he confirmed that post-Brexit farm support measures will focus on a number of key themes: recognizing the role of active farmers in adopting sustainable production practices, creating an enabling environment for agricultural development. young people coming into the industry and raising efficiency levels in the industry.

With regard to beef, the minister referred to a revolution in the sector similar to the one already taking place in the pig and poultry sectors.

He added: “The use of improved genetics and the introduction of management systems that improve performance and reduce environmental impacts, particularly greenhouse gas emissions, are priorities for the beef industry.”

Edwin Poots concluded: “All future support measures will be supported by a measurable improvement in farm economic and environmental performance.”

So there you have it: as farming in Northern Ireland looks to the future, improved genetics will play a key role.

It’s definitely something we’re all looking forward to.

But developing new genotypes and bloodlines is one thing: managing them effectively is another day’s work entirely!

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