Brainstorming the yield challenge

Scientists to gather for inaugural Translational Photosynthesis Conference in Australia in June


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Improved photosynthesis is regarded as critical to ensuring grains future productivity.

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Professor John Evans, of the Australian National University, is chairing the organising committee for the Translational Photosynthesis Conference: Innovations in Agriculture for Food Security. PHOTO Natalia Bateman, ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis

Professor John Evans, of the Australian National University, is chairing the organising committee for the Translational Photosynthesis Conference: Innovations in Agriculture for Food Security. PHOTO Natalia Bateman, ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis

Science is in the process of turning photosynthesis traits into the future source of the yield gains that the world needs to maintain food security, particularly of bread wheat and rice.

However, this initiative faces intricate technical challenges.

In response, researchers are drawing on the most advanced phenomic and genomic technology platforms available.

They are also taking a collaborative approach to research and development (R&D) and have created a network of cooperating laboratories that criss-cross the globe.

Now, for the first time, representatives from that network are gathering to attend the Translational Photosynthesis Conference: Innovations in Agriculture for Food Security.

The aim is to draw together research, industry, regulators and growers to build the linkages and dialogue needed to translate research into innovation in the paddock. - Australian National University Professor John Evans

Given Australian research excellence in this area, the inaugural conference is being held in Australia, at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre in Queensland, from June 30 to July 3, with GRDC providing important sponsorship.

The Australian organisers are taking a distinctly unacademic approach to this meeting, expanding the conference's themes to include issues around delivering research to where it matters: in farmers' fields.

Consequently, organisers have dropped standard academic formats, included a larger representation of grain industry stakeholders, including growers who are encouraged to attend, and speakers are requested to make their work accessible to that broader audience.

Australian National University Professor John Evans is chairing the organising committee, with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis and its director, Professor Robert Furbank, hosting the event.

"The aim is to draw together research, industry, regulators and growers to build the linkages and dialogue needed to translate research into innovation in the paddock," Professor Evans says.

"We want to build capacity to deliver to growers into the initiative from the beginning."

The scope of the conference, therefore, expands beyond plant biology to also deal with climate change, big data modelling and robotics, including the segue of this technology from pre-breeding innovation to commercial breeding technology, and on to regulatory issues, especially with regards to emerging genomic technology such as gene editing.

Professor Robert Furbank is the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis that is helping to lift bread wheat yields by targeting photosynthetic traits. PHOTO ANU

Professor Robert Furbank is the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis that is helping to lift bread wheat yields by targeting photosynthetic traits. PHOTO ANU

Additionally, issues that are specific to the developed and developing world are included.

A striking example is a planned presentation on a hand-held phenomics device suited for breeders in developing countries.

It uses infrared and visible light to assess differences in photosynthetic characteristics among genetically diverse plant populations - which is the grist of genetic gain.

Phenomics - the technology developed around automated mass screening of plant traits - has been an especially important driver of pre-breeding innovation.

It also helps make sense of swathes of genomics data in ways that can accelerate plant breeding programs.

But phenomics has until now been the preserve of developed nations, with Australia - and its paddock-centric research focus - especially responsible for important technology milestones.

The new hand-held device can tap into this expertise, using mobile phone connectivity to access Cloud-based analytics.

The system can provide data on about 50 photosynthesis traits. Such a device is already linking researchers in Nigeria - where important biodiversity and globally important production challenges exist - to the global community of photosynthesis researchers.

The yield challenge

Among the presenters will be researchers targeting gains in wheat yields via the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) that received $10 million in GRDC investment.

However, the conference won't be focused solely on yields in specific crops.

Instead, organisers are tackling overarching issues affecting all crops, such as how best to prepare a delivery pipeline so that the traits can reach growers faster.

Other issues to be explored include:

  • Efforts to alter the genetic base of photosynthesis (which includes tapping natural diversity)
  • Applying gene modification
  • Gene editing
  • Accelerated evolution technology
  • Regulatory and safety issues.

Essential to making sense of genetic advances is field-testing large volumes of genetically diverse plant populations, which is driving rapid advances in robotic and remote-sensing phenomics technology.

This emerging technology raises the need for conversations around big data, artificial intelligence and computer models that can form the basis for highly advanced pre-breeding programs that, in turn, drive additional technology development.

Delivery to breeders then raises issues of translating these state-of-the-art trait discovery and screening technologies into tools suited for use by breeders.

This process requires ongoing conversation between the pre-breeding and breeding sectors, especially as phenomics and genome prediction technology is being looked at favourably by commercial breeding companies.

Professor Furbank says these conference themes reflect an urgency that currently underlies all yield-based R&D.

"Current yield gains fall well short of rates of yield improvement needed to meet projected global food demand," he says.

"Conventional plant breeding is currently focused on yield, disease resistance and grain quality. New approaches are needed to facilitate a broader range of traits for breeders."

Central to these new traits is an overarching need to improve crop productivity with limited resources.

Ultimately that means increasing biomass production per unit of sunlight, water and nutrients - a feat especially suited to the biology of photosynthesis.

Session titles and keynote speakers

  1. New dynamics, new responses: Jacqueline Hughes, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
  2. Advances in Water Use & Efficiencies: Tony Condon, CSIRO Australia.
  3. Capturing Carbon in Photosynthesis: Tracy Lawson, University of Essex, UK.
  4. Photosynthetic Light Capture & Conversion: John Leslie, Vertical Farm Systems.
  5. Responding to Climate Change Impacts on Agricultural Production: Mark Howden, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University.
  6. Increasing energy use efficiency: Mark Stitt, Max-Planck Institute, Germany.
  7. Improving photoconversion: Matthew Paul, Rothamsted Research, UK.
  8. Benefiting from big data and modelling: Jane Trindall, Cotton Research and Development Corporation.
  9. Future gene editing and synthetic biology: Emma Wallington, National Institute of Agricultural Botany, UK; Raj Bhula, Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, Australia.
  10. Robots to remote sensing: Salah Sukkarieh, University of Sydney, Australia.
  11. Genome selection to phenome: David Kramer, Michigan State University, USA.
  12. Synthesis: John Anderson, Crawford Fund Australia.

More information: John Evans, John.evans@anu.edu.au; Robert Furbank, robert.furbank@anu.edu.au

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