I was raised on a sheep farm in New Zealand which was in an area of undisturbed natural beauty. My very early interest in natural science probably arose from these influences and was guided by excellent teachers at high school. I attended Auckland University in N.Z. between 1973 and 1975, studying for an MSc in biochemistry. Subsequently I travelled to the UK and obtained a PhD degree in Biochemistry from Cambridge University in 1979. It was my good fortune to attend early lectures on DNA sequencing and on the emerging use of the small nematode worm C. elegans as a model system, influences that have helped guide my long-term research interests. Between 1980 and1983 I was a post-doctoral Fellow at Washington University in St Louis, working in the laboratory of Mary-Dell Chilton on Agrobacterium tumefaciens genetics and crown gall tumour formation. These were among the most scientifically exciting and demanding times, because we were trying to understand how genes that originated from a bacterial plasmid were expressed in plants. Eventually this work led to the first expression of chimaeric genes in plants and the development of efficient binary transformation vectors for plant transformation. Our close association with Monsanto during the early 1980's added further excitement due to their work on developing transgene technology for crop improvement using Agrobacterium transformation methods. The knowledge gained from this early work laid the foundations for GM agriculture. I was awarded the Rank Prize for Nutrition for my contributions to this work in 1987. Since returning to the UK I have worked essentially in the same job, although this has moved from the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge to the John Innes Centre in Norwich, and I have steadily accumulated a wider range of additional responsibilities and interests. In the past few years I led the first efforts to sequence the Arabidopsis genome, which was completed in 2000, and contributed with European colleagues to establish functional genomics resources. For this work I received the Kumho award in 2001. My current research interests are in the genetic analysis of growth control and sugar signalling in Arabidopsis, in developing genomics resources for the new model grass Brachypodium distachyon, and in physical mapping of the wheat genome. My organisational interests, related to my job as Head of the Cell and Developmental Biology Department at the John Innes Centre, have arisen from genomics- related projects that required setting up international collaborations. I have been actively involved, as vice-chair of the European Plant Science Organisation, in promoting plant research in Europe and trying to raise its profile and funding. I do this because I believe that there is untapped potential in European plant science that must be effectively mobilised, at national and European levels, if we are to meet the challenges of sustainability, wealth creation and climate change. One example of these challenges is using our every increasing knowledge of plants to develop bioenergy crops as a sustainable and cost-effective source of transport fuel and other products.
Crop Plant Genomics for Food Security.
Securing food supply on a global scale currently faces a complex set of unprecedented problems, including rising demand due to population increases and social mobility, global climate change, energy costs, and resource limitations. Responding effectively to these challenges has become a major focus for scientists and policy makers world-wide.
Nearly all nutrition for humans and our domesticated animals is derived from only 6 plant species: rice, wheat, maize, barley, soybean and potato. Each of these crops has been domesticated from a very limited range of wild ancestral species; therefore each of these major crops has a relatively narrow genetic diversity from which novel traits can be identified for crop improvement. In view of the unprecedented demand for greater yields within a sustainable production system, a commensurate increase in innovation is needed to secure crop improvement.
In my presentation I will describe how advances in genomics and biotechnology are shaping modern crop improvement. I will focus on the advances made in understanding the functions of plant genes and how this knowledge is being applied to improve plant yield and pest tolerance. The large and complex polyploid genomes of many crops are formidable barriers to genome analysis; I will show how the application of next generation sequencing technology has broken these barriers and facilitated the sequencing of multiple variants to exploit new sources of genetic variation.
Finally, I will develop a scenario for the large-scale application of genomics for crop improvement, focussing on wheat, one of the most important crops in the world.