Current JobPost-Doctoral scientist
John Innes Centre (JIC) is an independent, internationally renowned research centre with a focus on plant and microbial (bacteria, viruses) research. You can find out more about it on the official website (http://www.jic.ac.uk/).
The most exciting thing that's happened this year in my research area:
At the moment there are so many things happening, it is mind boggling 🙂
The genome of bread wheat was recently assembled to a chromosome level, i.e. we now know the exact sequence of each chromosome, and also the position and sequence of (almost) all the genes that make up the bread wheat genome. For the wheat community, this was on a similar magnitude to the human genome being assembled. But as in human genetics, now the focus turns to fully sequencing as many varieties and species of wheat as possible in order to create a ‘pangenome’ for wheat. A pangenome is a representation of all strains of a species and consists of two parts: a core genome, which represents genes present in all strains of a species; and a variable genome, which includes genes that are exclusive to a subset of strains.
From the efforts to create the human pangenome we know that new sequences and genes are still discovered frequently (despite the genome being sequence almost 20 years ago). The bread wheat genome is 5 times as large as the human genome, and in addition it is actually composed of three independent genomes; this phenomenon is called polyplpoidy and it is very common in plants, but much less in animals. So the possibility to discover new sequences and genes is huge, but is also (just like in humans) an enormous task.
My latest work:
Wheat is an important staple crop (it provides ~20% of calories and protein consumed worldwide). With the global population predicted to hit 10 billion by 2050, food production has to increase ~50-60%. And that in the face of climate change and dwindling resources.
Yield is a complex trait that is difficult to manipulate; changing a single yield component often results in so-called compensation effects that negate most of the yield gain. Grain weight is a yield component that is determined late in the life cycle of a wheat plant and is thus less likely to be compensated by other effects. This makes it an ideal starting point to try and dissect yield in wheat.
I am using both at natural variation of grain weight, e.g. between different cultivars of wheat as well as induced variation such as can be found in the wheat TILLING population and is interested in elucidating the function of known regulators of grain weight such as TaGw2 as well as identify and characterise novel loci. Understanding when, where and how these genes act on grain development will help us to increase grain weight and hopefully yield as well.
My favourite misconception about my area of science:
This would have to be misconceptions about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Generally, there is a lot of distrust with regards to GMOs, as they contain “foreign” genes. But since life on earth has evolved over billions of years starting from a few common ancestors, this notion of “foreign” and “native” genes is absurd. Humans share ~50% of their DNA with bananas and 25% with grapes. Genes move around between species in nature as well. A great example of this was the discovery that sweet potato naturally contains genes from a bacterium: it is a natural GMO.
In addition, humans have modified animals and plants for millenia, resulting in modern species being almost unrecognizable when comapred to their anecstors (e.g. teosinte and maize; carrots!). So the plants and animals we consider as “natural” are already products of human interference in the evolutionary process.
More nuance and understanding is required from all sides when discussing this (and similar) topics.