Paranoid plants, productive sheep, queen bees, wheat, barley, rice, bin chickens, flower and fruit yield

Conferences, International Congress of Genetics

Agricultural genetic stories from the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne.

Read on for more information about each story.

A genomic future for Australian sheep?

Australian sheep are twice as productive as they were 60 years ago and it’s good for them, good for the economy and for the environment.

According to Alison Van Eenennaam from University of California, Davis speaking at the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne.

“It’s a success story for all three sustainability pillars – economic, environmental, social.”

“Australia famously rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back. Wool was the main export commodity from 1871 to the 1960s at which time Australia was more sheep (159 million) than people (11 million),” she says.

“Modern genetic tools, genomic selection and precision breeding, offer opportunities to further accelerate genetic improvement.”

“Genome-editing offers an opportunity to precisely bring in genetic variation (and therefore useful characteristics) from other breeds.”

“Genomic selection has been successfully adopted into livestock breeding programs globally, however the future of genome-editing is less clear due to both regulatory and public acceptance uncertainties.”

Paranoid plants: conflict in the immune system

Hybrid plants can become paranoid and fail says Detlef Weigel from the Max Planck Institute for Biology Tübingen, Germany.

Hybrid plants can become paranoid. Regardless of the presence of enemies, plants “think” they are being attacked by pathogens. The consequence is autoimmunity, which can be extreme enough to kill plants before they set seeds.

Detlef has studied in detail the underlying genetics, finding that often, only one or two genetic points are involved.

He outlined at the International Congress of Genetics what his team has learnt in Arabidopsis and the implications for plant breeding.

More at

Australia’s wild relatives key to climate adaption

Australia is home to wild relatives of many crops including rice, sorghum, millet, banana, citrus, soybean, mung bean and macadamia.

Discovering the genome of these wild relatives will help us adapt crops for climate change, says Robert Henry from the University of Queensland.

Fruit and flower yield influenced by ‘shoot-branch architecture’

Saiyara Shehnaz from the University of Queensland is investigating the genes that influence the development of shoots in mangos and other tropical fruit trees.

Queen bee larvae need more TLC

The way we are raising queens may be reducing the quality and number of their offspring.

When the honeybee queen is only a larva herself, she contains the cells that will make her future offspring. When the queen matures and begins to lay eggs, these cells have developed into large numbers of clusters of eight connected cells located in the queen’s ovaries.

The number of these clusters may be set when the queen is a larva, suggesting we need to be careful in the way we treat growing queen larvae, says Georgia Cullen from the University of Otago, New Zealand.

Beneficial insects develop insecticide resistance – and that’s not a good thing

Felipe Martelli from the University of Melbourne has found that resistance to an organic insecticide used to control pest insects could potentially affect the health of non-pest insects.

He found that the organic insecticide spinosad affects the brain, metabolic and reproductive tissues of the non-pest insect Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly).

Mutations that confer resistance to this insecticide have evolved in the field. That may seem like a good thing. But these mutations could actually reduce the fitness of beneficial insects – resistance comes at a price.

Barley loses diversity, wheat doesn’t

A study of a wheat breeding program from 1900 to 2020 and for a barley breeding program from 1980 to 2020 has shown that barley lost diversity while the wheat program didn’t.

Presenting the work at the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne, Bettina Lado, from Universidad de la República in Uruguay, said the study provides fundamental information for improvement programs.

It will help us make future decisions such as introducing new genetic diversity, exploring specific genes or regions of the genome, or incorporating germplasm to conserve genetic diversity that may have been lost.

OzWheat reveals which wheat genes to edit

Crop breeding is entering a new era, with high-throughput genomics and phenomics at population-scale now able to resolve genetics that underpins complex biological systems.

Jessica Hyles and her colleagues from the University of Sydney and CSIRO have established a functional genomics platform ‘OzWheat’ to unravel the genetic architecture of wheat adaptation and provide targets for future breeding.

OzWheat comprises 283 lines curated by pedigree to broadly represent genetic diversity of existing Australian cultivars, plus novel global diversity missing from Australian breeding programs.

This represents a new data-driven breeding technology to design future crops for different farming systems and environments.

Improving rice nutrition: zinc, iron, beta carotene

In countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines, rice is deeply embedded in social and cultural aspects of society and is the major staple food.

Improving the micronutrient content of rice will improve the nutritional baseline in the sub-population whose dietary staple is rice.

Inez H. Slamet-Loedin, from the International Rice Research Institute in The Philippines, reported on their efforts to fortify rice.

  • Conventionally-bred high zinc rice varieties have already been released in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
  • Malusog (Golden) Rice is being developed and deployed in the Philippines
  • High iron and zinc rice has undergone multi-location field trials in two countries and is being prepared for regulatory review.
  • Enhanced nutrition using CRISPR/CAS techniques in rice are being developed at IRRI and other CGIAR centers with collaborative partners.

IRRI is using biotechnology approaches that safely and responsibly deliver additional benefits to farmers and consumers that cannot be achieved through conventional breeding.

Are bin chickens spreading Japanese encephalitis?

Australia experienced the largest recorded Japanese encephalitis virus outbreak in 2021 and 2022 with 45 human cases and 7 deaths. Over 80 piggeries were also affected.

Wild water birds are natural reservoirs for the virus. Native Australian ibises, among other birds, were implicated in the recent outbreak. Because ibises are common in urban centres, they could play a role in spreading Japanese encephalitis and other important pathogens.

Anjana Karawita and his colleagues at CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness in Geelong are using genomics to investigate the role of bin chickens in spreading Japanese encephalitis virus to other animals and humans.