Major European award for plant genetics research

A James Hutton Institute and University of Dundee scientist has been awarded a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant.

This will allow undertaking of research on the fundamental mechanisms that underpin the inheritance of genetic characteristics in cereal crop breeding; it is hoped that results may assist the development of new cereal varieties suited to challenging growing conditions.

Professor Robbie Waugh of the James Hutton Institute’s Cell and Molecular Sciences and Dundee University's College of Life Sciences was awarded €2.5 million to support a 60-month study that will look into the dynamics of the process called recombination that drives the exchange of parental genetic information in plant breeding.

Professor Waugh explains: “Recombination is exploited in plant breeding by generating large populations of offspring from crosses between parental lines. Recombination shuffles the genetic materials contributed by each parent, generating new combinations from which genetically improved individuals are selected.

“This project will focus on identifying the molecular components involved in recombination, and developing strategies that could be used to increase or redistribute it, hence improving the breeding process.”

The project builds on the expertise of both the Institute and University in crop genetics research, which has already contributed to landmark achievements such as the unravelling the potato and barley genomes.

ERC Advanced Grants allow exceptional established research leaders of any nationality and any age to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk projects that open new directions in their respective research fields or other domains. The funding scheme targets researchers who have already established themselves as independent research leaders in their own right.

Professor Bob Ferrier, Director of Research Impact at the James Hutton Institute, commented: “This is a fantastic opportunity to advance the science around breeding new crop varieties. ERC grants are awarded to exceptional individuals proposing creative and innovative ideas so it is a great measure of esteem for Robbie and all his colleagues at the institute and the University of Dundee who work closely together at our Invergowrie campus.

“The award also reinforces our global reputation for work on barley which is an increasingly important crop and adds to the momentum behind our plans for a new International Barley Innovation Centre in Invergowrie.”

Professor Waugh’s research explores areas of biology that have resulted in historical advances during the process of domestication, cultivation, and breeding of crops. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2013 and his research has been regularly featured in high profile scientific publications and journals.

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