German Plant Breeding Conference: Leveraging the value of genomic information Wernigerode, Feb 28. to March 3, 2018

This year, the workshop of the genetic resources working group was organized by the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in conjunction with the main conference.  Nearly 300 participants from 18 nations discussed progress and recent developments in the context of the ever-increasing availability of genomic information for crop plants and their genetic resources. Genomic information is considered to be of key importance to drive the genetic improvement of crop plants. Against this backdrop the German Plant Breeding Conference has highlighted the impact of genomics information and novel breeding technologies by lining up outstanding keynote speakers and a wide spectrum of lectures to review recent progress in the analysis of crop plant genomes with regard to the conservation of plant genetic resources, the identification and functional characterization of genes and the development of enabling technologies. In addition, the conference has provided a platform for both scientists and plant breeders to network and to learn about and discuss recent developments and to forecast future trajectories of innovation.

The scientific program was structured into six sessions featuring 29 presentations. Details of the program are available at http://meetings.ipk-gatersleben.de/gpbc2018/program-2/.

Each session was ushered in by a keynote lecture to review the topic of the session and to present recent results and development in a general context. Additionally, invited lectures were given by leading scientists to present specific research highlights. Finally, young scientists presented their findings in short presentations which were selected by the scientific committee from the submitted abstracts.

The first session “Conservation and Characterization of Plant Genetic Resources” highlighted new developments regarding Access and Benefit Sharing. Here, implications of the regulations laid down in the Nagoya Protocol were outlined by Susan McCouch (Cornell University, USA) and Frank Begemann (BLE). Adoption of the corresponding legislation in 2014 entails severe consequences on the exchange of seeds and plant material for research activities,  even more so, if digital sequence information would be included in the corresponding regulations.  This is of particular relevance for research concerned with resequencing entire genebank collections. In case of barley, first results on the molecular characterization of 15.000 accessions of the barley collection of the Federal ex situ Genebank were presented by Nils Stein (IPK Gatersleben).

The second Session dealt with novel developments in the field of “Trait Mapping and Gene Discovery”. In this key area of crop genomics Brande Wulff (John Innes Centre, UK) highlighted the potential of wild species to identify novel resistance genes for wheat. In combination with “speed breeding”,  the introgression of novel alleles in combination with backcross programs will increase the usefulness of crop wild relatives for plant breeding.  In the same vein, Rajeev Varshney (ICRISAT, Hyderabad, India) illustrated the impact of genomics on breeding of tropical legume species such as chickpea and pigeonpea.

Session 3 addressed the manifold challenges increase “Yield Potential”. Robert Sharwood (Australian National University, Canberra) presented novel approaches towards improving CO2 fixation by Rubisco engineering and by the conversion of C3 to C4 photosynthesis. By exploiting natural diversity in wheat, Thorsten Schnurbusch (IPK Gatersleben) presented recent finding to alter spike morphology in wheat in order to increase kernel numbers.

Session 4 “Advances in Breeding” highlighted recent advancements in predictive breeding concepts. Chris-Carolin Schön (Technical University of Munich), summarized the main factors influencing prediction accuracy in genomic selection schemes and Albrecht Melchinger (University of Hohenheim) illustrated the benefits of doubled haploid lines from landraces as a resource for maize breeding and germplasm conservation.

In Session 5 “Biotechnology” Paul Christou (University of Lerida, Spain) addressed the advantages of genome engineering to introduce specific alterations into genomes in order to improve nutritional traits in cereals. In the evening lecture, Achim Doberman (Rothamsted Research, UK) outlined future challenges of agricultural research: food security, nutritional quality, and bioeconomy. Based on examples of different crop species he demonstrated the potential of genetic engineering for the improvement of crop plants.

Session 6 “Future Challenges” featured a keynote lecture from a representative of Bayer Crop Sciences, Ed Souza (stepping in for Catherine Feuillet). Research activities in the company focus on precision phenotyping, genome editing, and genomic selection. A “systems breeding approach” has been devised to integrate genomics, phenomics, genomic selection, and biotechnology. Owing to the lack of appropriate research tools and technologies, the root system of crop plants has escaped systematic investigation. The availability of high throughput sequencing information has fundamentally improved the situation to study the root microbiome. In this regard, Paul Schulze-Lefert (Max-Planck Inst. for Plant Breeding Research, Cologne) presented novel insight into population genomics of the root microbiome, the promotion of root growth by specific rhizobium strains and their interplay with Flagellin related resistance to fungal pathogens that attack above-ground parts of the plant.

In the closing lecture of the meeting Ed Buckler (Cornell University, USA) presented as a final highlight his visionary views and studies to assess the effect of allele frequencies on quantitative trait expression and how to exploit this knowledge in combination with machine learning approaches for crop improvement.

In addition to the lecture program, the more than 100 poster contributions were presented. The three best poster contributions were awarded a prize donated by GPZ.

After the conference, the participants had the opportunity to visit the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) and the European Wheat Breeding Center of Bayer CropScience at the Gatersleben campus site.

The next meeting is scheduled for 2020. Suggestion regarding program and venue are welcome.

(Andreas Graner, Gatersleben)