National Phenomics Centre to develop new plants and crops

A £6.8m research centre which aims to develop new plants and crops has been opened at Aberystwyth University. The National Plant Phenomics Centre provides a step change in the way plant biology is implemented. The high throughput part allows whole populations of plants, such as breeding populations, mapping experiments, natural diversity collections, and mutant collections, to be analysed in parallel and under multiple defined environments.

Scientists will use the centre to ask questions about plant characteristics – everything from growth rate to water use to formation useful metabolites – and how these physical parameters are affected by genes, the environment and the interplay between the two. The answers will feedback into twenty-first century food security challenges and the need for better, more efficient biofuels among other projects. The NPPC will be fully operational in 2013 and is part of IBERS, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC.

Plants are used for more than just food. They provide clothing, lubricant oils, medicinal ingredients, ropes and twine, paper, logs for heating, and biofuels too. Improving plants, however, still comes down to measuring physical aspects of the organism: height, growth rate, number of flowers, leaf shape. But until now, collecting this vast array of information has mostly been done by hand or automated only on a small scale.

To collect such a wealth of data, the NPPC has an extensive floor space the size of three tennis courts (750m2). It’s been designed for ‘medium’-sized plants such as the small grain cereals (wheat, barley, oats) and oilseed rape but can also handle smaller forage grasses and larger plants like maize and Miscanthus. What’s special are the automated imaging chambers that can record in everything from infra-red to ultra-violet light to obtain information on the physiology of plants, such as organ temperature, water content and photosynthetic activity, as well as their shape and size. One can imagine extending this approach to almost any trait for which variation exists within the breeding population of almost any crop.

This large scale multiplicity of 880 carriages (for up to 3400 plants) and five imaging chambers working simultaneously. A key part of the NPPC’s work will be the identification of useful alleles [gene variants] or more likely combinations of alleles, that produce desirable physical traits, or phenotypes as they are known. Tracking these are other genetic markers of known DNA will allow molecular breeding techniques to be applied to a wider range of traits, and for this reason the NPPC is located next door to the Translational Genomics Lab where plants will be genotyped using the latest technology.

This new activity in ‘phenomics’ has been driven by the incredible advances seen in genomics over the past decade. Defining the genetic characteristics of an organism by DNA sequencing at the molecular level has gone from years and millions of dollars to just a few hours and hundreds. But plant and animal features cannot be characterised at the organismal level in the same way. The NPPC presents a means to remedy this discrepancy by integrating automated plant handling and environmental control with computer vision and machine-learning approaches.
One of the aims of the NPPC is to establish standards for objective phenotyping in plant biology, which has often been subjective, while associated environmental metadata can be inaccurate, incomplete or lacking. The controlled environment of the NPPC can counter this. Data can also be combined with programmes closer to home at IBERS. One example is the BEACON Project which aims to develop new ways of converting crops such as rye grass, oats and Miscanthus into products including pharmaceuticals, fuels and cosmetics; BEACON uses fundamental bioscience advances previously funded by BBSRC.

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