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Periodic Report Summary 3 - WHEALBI (Wheat and barley Legacy for Breeding Improvement)

Project Context and Objectives:
To satisfy the demand of an expanding population, agriculture faces the challenge of delivering safer, high quality, and health-promoting food and feed in an economic, environmentally sensitive, and sustainable manner. A sustained effort is thus required to generate crops with higher and more stable yields across diverse and changing environments. Wheat and barley are key renewable resources and among the most important crops worldwide.
Wheat yields have been stagnating in the European Union (EU) since the mid-1990s (FAOSTAT2010). In a recent study in France, Brisson et al (2010) showed that this stagnation was mostly due to climate, i.e. increased frequency and severity of negative factors such as drought or high temperatures. These effects of climate are more severe in Southern European and are not expected to improve, whatever the climate scenario to occur.
In addition, intensification of agricultural practices is associated with increased crop damages caused by pests and diseases. Chemical control has been increasingly used and Europe is currently the number one user of pesticides in the world, with cereal cultivation accounting for 40% of this consumption. This situation leads to high production costs, emergence of resistance to pesticides, and environmental and human health concerns. The most sustainable alternative to pesticides is the use of crop varieties that are genetically resistant to pathogens. Thus, genetics is one of the principal of addressing the effects of both climate change, and societal demands for environmental sustainability and healthy products.
In order to flourish, breeding programmes in either large companies or small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) will need to select new varieties that are both adapted to changing environments and to more sustainable cropping systems while maintaining or improving yield. This implies more resilience to biotic and abiotic stresses, increased water and nitrogen use efficiency and higher stability of yield and grain quality. Agronomists and crop (eco)-physiologists must help define optimal combinations of traits, or so-called ideotypes. Crop management systems must also evolve to fit the improved properties of these new ideotypes. They will have to consider issues such as yield stability in adverse conditions, lower dependence on chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides), and maintenance of desirable grain composition under sub-optimal plant nutrition. Eco-physiology and gene (network) modelling will help define crop ideotypes for the future that are aligned to new crop management practices.
WHEALBI will develop and implement tools, methods and procedures to facilitate the characterisation of wild relatives and local varieties of wheat and barley as sources of genes for use in crop improvement. It will explore the application of modern molecular, computational and analytical tools to provide understanding of the evolutionary processes that have shaped the current diversity in the genepool and to predict exploitable value from unadapted germplasm. It will develop innovative methods to optimise the use of these resources in pre-breeding and breeding programmes. New ideotypes will be evaluated in innovative cropping systems under several climatic conditions. Particular attention will be paid to the usefulness of the developed tools and knowledge and their transfer to stakeholders, particularly SMEs, breeders as well as present and future farmers. The WHEALBI project will make use of a multidisciplinary approach, including genetics, genomics, ecophysiology, bioinformatics, biostatistics, agronomy and socio-economy to improve European production of wheat and barley, through increasing productivity, robustness and adaptation to changing environmental conditions. This will be achieved by improving the efficiency of wheat and barley breeding programmes and designing sustainable crop management systems adapted to new plant ideotypes.
Project Results:
WHEALBI started on January 1st, 2014The main actions and achievements are:
• In WP1, a panel of 512 wheat and 512 barley genetic resources was selected from European Genebanks. All 1024 wheat and barley accessions are available as multiplied seed stocks from INRA (wheat) and IPK-GGR (barley) is available through the URGI portal (
• In WP2, high throughput genomics and informatics technologies generated over half a million gene-based DNA polymorphisms for c. 500 wheat and 500 barley accessions, representing the global resources available for both crops. This comprehensive structural variant catalogue was utilised for deciphering the evolutionary and adaptive history of these crops, as well as providing a foundation for future crop improvement. Two manuscripts have been written on barley and wheat, respectively.
• WP3 has characterized the phenotype of the barleu and wheat panels grown in either standard field conditions, or in specific designs to evaluate drought tolerance or resistance to six different wheat/barley diseases. Overall WP3 has produced extremely large set of data for hundreds of traits over of the 1024 accessions. WP4 produced safe and accessible storage in a data base for sequence and phenotypic data. Statistical models to analyse the data have been developed and first applications were successful. Whealbi accessions were integrated into the GnpIS information.
• In WP5, specific wheat and barley genes (exome sequences) are studied for their molecular diversity in the more than 1000 lines which form the basis of the Whealbi project. These genes were chosen because they confer resistance to pathogens or to environmental conditions such as frost or drought. First results show that there is a large variability in the diversity of different genes: some are almost completely conserved in all lines, whereas others occur in many different forms.
• The objective of the work package 6 was to carry out and evaluate six different approaches to pre-breeding aimed at delivering novel genetic diversity and knowledge to commercial plant breeders. The six independent pre-breeding projects have all progressed significantly and outcomes passed on to commercial lines breeders for exploitation in targeted breeding.
• The aim of the work performed within WP 7 is to identify wheat and barley ideotypes that will perform in low input agricultural systems either under conservation management or organic husbandry. A recent global sensitivity analysis of SiriusQuality helped deliver a list of traits and ideotypes transferred to the field experimental platforms for validation under field conditions. Work continues with the established field experimental platforms under conservation management for contrasting tillage approaches as well as with the established field experimental platforms under organic husbandry for contrasting tillage approaches.
• WP8 disseminated WHEALBI results around the use of diversity of Wheat and Barley to build more resilient varieties. Thus, general public, students, young researchers, stakeholders are informed, trained, participate and interact at many levels of the WP, and many visible and tangible communication actions can be seen, for example videos that have been largely broadcasted to YouTube and social Networks.
• WP9 made sure that the rules of participation to this project were clear for all partners; to overcome issues that may occur and ensure a smooth reporting. These objectives were met by the organisation of the fourth annual meetings; by assisting the partners on the administrative and financial issues and by preparing the reporting process. Transversal issues concerning various WPs were discussed during dedicated sessions of the annual meetings and some more informal meetings (workshops, phone or vision conferences. The collaborative platform was upgraded, enabling sharing and exchange of ideas and documents between the partners.
Potential Impact:
The WHEALBI project specifically will deliver:
• A publicly accessible collection of 1024 geo-referenced inbred wheat and barley accessions chosen from across the geographic range;
• Deep sequence (5-20X) of the exomes of the same wheat and barley accessions highlighting genetic variation;
• Life history trait and phenotypic data from all wheat and barley accessions grown in multiple environments across Europe;
• Phenotypic data of a selected subset of wheat and barley accessions from a high-throughput/precision phenotyping platform;
• A data repository and management system containing all of the above data;
• An interpretation of the observed patterns of diversity in relation to geography and environment;
• A list of candidate genes and alleles involved in key traits such as grain quality, frost and drought tolerance and resistance against fungal diseases;
• Pre-breeding pipelines to integrate new useful variation into applied breeding programmes, including those from old varieties and wild relatives;
• Identification of new sustainable crop management systems and their economic evaluation at both farm and EU levels;
• Identification of best ideotypes suited for innovative sustainable cropping systems, with reduced environmental impact (in terms of pollution, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions);
• Advice to policy makers at EU level on project related impacts (e.g. in relation to support agriculture, agro-environment and other CAP - Common Agricultural Policy - related issues).

As consequence of the WHEALBI activities a number of downstream effects will be promoted.

Development of breeding tools to support the breeding sector
The tools that will be developed in WHEALBI and the proof of concept made on the exome sequences will place EU research and industry in an ideal position to valorise future developments in genomics. This will help maintain EU scientists and breeders in the first circle of top world achievements in cereal genomics.

Development of new varieties with increased genetic variation and improved agronomic, processing and nutritional characteristics to support the farming sector
Succeeding in filling the “yield gap” of European wheat and barley production will help to maintain the gross value of major cereals production. With a reasonable figure of 30 kg/ha/year on average, across all EU countries, this would lead to about 50 more million tons in the decade following WHEALBI, i.e. a gross value of around 10 billion euros, and is certainly crucial for the maintenance of EU export capacity.

Widening the range of available adapted cereal genotypes
The efficient exploitation of untapped biodiversity of small grain cereal genetic resources, including wild relatives and landraces, through genome based methods will ensure the potential of long-term genetic progress, particularly for specific adaptive traits to crop management systems which have been little considered up to now.

Environmental impact of new varieties grown in improved and/or novel management practices
Development of new varieties with durable resistance to diseases will enable farmers to reduce the use of fungicides, saving around 500 million euros per annum while maintaining yield and safer production of grains. This output will enable farmers to comply with the IPM requirements.
Adopting tilling conservation on at least 50% of the EU cereals growing areas will stop the degradation and even improve the soil organic matter content. In addition to the positive impact on soil erosion and fertility, this will lead to the sequestration of substantial quantities of carbon.

Contribution to food security through more productive, diversified and resilient European cereal production
WHEALBI outcomes will enable EU agriculture to maintain its cereal production at a high level with more limited year to year variations. This will have positive impact on world production stability, limiting the volatility of cereal prices which has dramatic consequences on farmer incomes and consumers well-being, particularly in developing countries, but also on poor people in developed ones.
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