Thursday, October 26, 2023


Mackay and Whitsunday Life

Plant Breeding Breakthrough

By Kevin Borg, Chairman, CANEGROWERS Mackay

It has been excellent to see the recent news from the University of Queensland and Sugar Research Australia that a five-year collaboration has resulted in proof through a validation trial that genomic selection can successfully predict the performance of key sugarcane traits.

The technology promises to bring benefits to the industry, improving plant breeding outcomes and speeding up the implementation of genetic improvements.

In the announcement, SRA’s Executive Manager of Variety Development Dr Jason Eglinton said while other crop industries were also adopting genomic selection, the technology would probably have a bigger impact for sugarcane because of the plant’s biology.

“For the UQ team to develop the calibrations, algorithms and then to validate those predictions in field performance work is a significant step forward. Sugarcane is a perennial crop so ordinarily we would be growing a trial for three years over multiple crop cycles to test its performance. If you can have a shortcut like a DNA profile telling you something about its performance, we don’t just save a year, we save three years.”

Dr Eglinton has said the models and methods developed by the UQ team were already being deployed in commercial variety development by SRA.

From my point of view as a grower, for some time now productivity has generally been in decline, although we have seen some reasonable outcomes in years of suitable weather conditions, particularly rainfall.

Since the early 90s and the introduction of green cane harvesting and trash blanketing, the industry has been on the search for the next stepped change in increasing production. These findings, I believe, are a great boon for our industry and have the potential to see us making major advances in our breeding program.

When we as farmers talk about productivity, it's very easy to blame varietal development. But there is a huge amount of work that goes into selecting varieties that suit different climate patterns in different growing regions, varieties that perform well in difficult soils, plants that have disease resistant qualities. The SRA plant breeders in each region are selecting, years in advance to solve many productivity challenges.

It's a 10 to 12-year process to release a new variety, with thousands of seedlings and years of careful seedling selection and ratooning trials that look at traits for ratooning, disease resistance, milling performance and, of course productivity qualities.

In SRA's renowned plant breeding program, only a small percentage of varieties come through the trials to be released and then trialled by growers in their own conditions on farm.

As an important part of the process of release, new varieties need to pass an assessment of the data presented by SRA staff through a long process at a Regional Variety Committee, comprising representatives from CANEGROWERS, prod services, millers.

It's great to see this development in genomic selection and the work of the UQ research team led by Professor Ben Hayes, and the SRA Variety Development staff led by Dr Jason Eglinton, SRA Executive Manager of Variety Development.

Prof Hayes has indicated that genomic selection has the capacity “to accelerate gains for the sugarcane traits that determine INCREASED profit for growers”. The technology has been successfully applied in both dairy cattle and wheat, resulting in productivity gains for those sectors.

The sugarcane genome is one of the most complex plant crops with modern varieties containing between 110 and 120 chromosomes – more complex, surprisingly, than the human genome.

Research is also underway at UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) to map the genome to pinpoint which genes are responsible for which traits and how genetic variation influences a plant’s composition and performance.

It is to be hoped that the introduction of this technology will support and refine the work of variety development and allow more precision in delivering the traits needed to build the industry's productivity in a shorter timeframe.

Validation trial, first ratoon stage. Photo credit: SRA

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