Professor Cristobal Uauy of JIC will be one of the lead researchers for the project “Leveraging genetic innovations for accelerated breeding of climate resilient and nutritious crops”. In this interview, he discusses the goals for project, JIC’s previous research on the topic, and why collaborating with CGIAR will be central to the project work.
Professor Cristóbal Uauy is a Group Leader in wheat genetics and genomics at the John Innes Centre. His programme focuses on using genetics and genomics to improve both yield and quality components in wheat. His lab uses molecular genetic approaches to identify genes involved in wheat productivity traits and enhance the translation of this knowledge into improved varieties for farmers, industry and citizens. His lab also develops open-access tools and resources to enhance scientific discovery, such as www.wheat-training.com, www.wheat-expression.com and www.crop-haplotypes.com. Cristobal’s work has been widely recognized (e.g. the Society of Experimental Biology President’s Medal (2014), the Royal Agricultural Society of England Research Medal (2017)). He studied Agronomy in the Universidad Católica de Chile and holds a PhD in Genetics from the University of California, Davis.
Q. What is your academic and professional background and how has it shaped your current thinking?
I am a proud Agronomist by training. This provided me with a comprehensive background that has shaped my broad perspective on agricultural systems. My training covered various components, including soils, agricultural machinery, postharvest and all aspects of plant growth. Importantly, all these courses focused on studying plants grown in fields, a perspective I continue to carry with me.
As part of a ‘summer’ internship I secured a place in a plant genetics lab at Cornell University. This was summer in Chile, but deep winter in Cornell! This experience ignited my fascination with the potential of genetics and molecular biology to influence valuable plant traits for the benefit of humanity. Motivated by this interest, I pursued my PhD in Genetics at the University of California, Davis. The program provided a comprehensive two-year coursework covering various aspects of genetics, molecular biology, population genetics, and more, extending beyond the realm of plants. This diverse exposure allowed me to interact with scientists with broad interests.
My doctoral project, centred on wheat genetics, focused on identifying a gene responsible for increasing grain protein content. While rooted in molecular biology, the project included extensive field trials and was linked to a trait of immense value to the global industry. This experience paved the way for me to lead a group at the John Innes Centre, where I started my tenure in 2009. Since then, I have been constantly challenged and motivated by my colleagues who conduct fascinating discovery science while striving for real-world impact in the field. The new CGIAR project leverages this fundamental knowledge, combining it with innovative strategies to directly influence positive outcomes in the field.
Q. You’ll be Group Leader on the project, “Leveraging genetic innovations for accelerated breeding of climate resilient and nutritious crops”. What are the goals for this project?
The project aims to expedite the wheat breeding process by incorporating recent discoveries and embracing innovative breeding techniques, such as precision breeding (genome editing) and data-driven sequence-based discovery. The work stems from years of collaboration among the partners and is focused on delivering these innovations in farmer-preferred wheat cultivars.
Specifically, our focus is on developing locally adapted wheat cultivars that exhibit enhanced resistance to wheat rusts and elevated levels of iron—an essential micronutrient for human health. We will also use ‘big genome data’ approaches to accelerate the use of historical diversity within modern breeding programmes. The key to our success lies in strengthening partnerships, enhancing capacities across all collaborators, and gaining a deeper understanding of the translational ecosystem. This ecosystem encompasses policy-makers, farmers, and consumers, whose insights will inform deployment strategies and ensure that the project’s impact is realized effectively.
Q. Why is wheat so important to the world and what are the major challenges facing global wheat production?
Wheat stands as a crucial global food source, contributing to over 20% of our daily caloric intake and nearly 25% of our protein consumption. It serves as a dietary staple for billions of people worldwide, spanning all continents and finding diverse applications, including the production of bread, pasta, noodles, and animal feed. Additionally, wheat holds significant economic importance, acting as a major commodity in international trade. The geopolitical ramifications of wheat production are evident, as exemplified by the current events in Ukraine; for instance, Egypt, the world’s largest wheat-importing country, heavily relies on wheat sources from Ukraine and Russia.
However, global wheat production confronts numerous challenges, many of which are exacerbated by climate change and the genetic susceptibility of modern cultivars. Climate-change-induced disease epidemics have been observed across wheat-growing regions. These challenges arise from the emergence of more aggressive pathogen types or the introduction of new pathogens to regions where they previously could not thrive. The project is committed to addressing these challenges by expanding the genetic diversity of modern cultivars. In doing so, it aims to equip us and our partners with the necessary tools to develop more climate-resilient wheat varieties.
Q. One of the ways this project aims to help address the above challenges is by accelerating the breeding process and delivering higher genetic gain through genome editing. How will the John Innes Centre’s previous research contribute to this project?
The work on iron content and wheat rusts provides two examples of research which will feed into this project.
Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is a global health concern associated with increased mortality rates in women during childbirth, childhood stunting, and a general suppression of economic output. Enhancing the micronutrient content of staple cereal crops through selective breeding is a proposed strategy to address iron and zinc deficiencies, aligning with UN Sustainable Development Goal 2. This strategy has proven successful for zinc, where a high-zinc variety (Zincol) bred by CIMMYT and released in Pakistan has been shown to increase dietary zinc intake.
However, increasing grain iron content has proven particularly challenging due to the lack of natural variation, to the point that efforts have been discontinued. Recent work by JIC has found that with a thorough understanding of iron metabolism in crops, the total amount and the distribution of iron can be manipulated to benefit human nutrition. This has been demonstrated using a cis-genic approach to increase iron levels 4-fold in white wheat flour with no effect on yield in field trials.
Building on these results, we have identified a genome editing approach to target regulatory genes of iron uptake. JIC have generated precise edits in two negative regulators of iron uptake in wheat, rice, and other cereals. In the first-generation genome edited lines we have seen a 3-5 fold increase in total grain iron content, providing for the first time a plausible approach to genetically target this trait. This work was done directly in the high-zinc variety Zincol which means that we can combine both high iron and high zinc. This project will advance high iron genome edited CGIAR germplasm and evaluate their performance in target countries with high levels of IDA.
Wheat rusts pose a persistent threat to global wheat production, causing an annual loss of 15 million tons valued at $2.9 billion. The impact of these diseases directly influences production costs, prompting countries to import wheat. This leads to elevated prices and heightened food and nutrition insecurity. Traditionally, resistance to wheat rusts has been achieved by deploying resistant varieties with partial or race-specific resistance genes. However, this often results in “boom-bust cycles” where the pathogen evolves to overcome deployed resistance genes.
An alternative strategy, with potentially greater durability, involves identifying and disrupting host gene products known as susceptibility factors. The disruption of these factors can confer a fundamental loss of host susceptibility, which is exceptionally difficult for the pathogen to overcome. Project partners have recently identified two susceptibility factors against wheat rusts, and wheat mutants generated for both genes displayed a significant reduction in rust infection without observable developmental defects. Leveraging recent advances in genome editing technology, these genes can now be directly disrupted in CGIAR varieties for immediate integration into breeding pipelines. This project aims to test enhanced varieties in countries such as Kenya, Egypt, and Pakistan, where new, durable sources of rust resistance are urgently needed. The goal is to incorporate these disruptions into farmer-preferred varieties to mitigate future devastating rust epidemics in these regions.
Q. You’ll be working with teams in Kenya, Egypt, and Pakistan. Why were these countries chosen as locations for the research?
The project is a culmination of extensive collaborations among various partners, including JIC, ICARDA, and CIMMYT—the latter both CGIAR centres specializing in wheat breeding. Collectively, these institutions provide germplasm that accounts for over two-thirds of the world’s wheat production. The selection of countries for the project is based on longstanding collaborations and strategic considerations.
In Egypt, a nation highly dependent on wheat imports and vulnerable to global market fluctuations, the project addresses a critical need. With a substantial gap of 11.6 million tons between national wheat production and consumption, Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. Previous market disruptions, such as the Russian-Ukraine crisis, have led to significant impacts, including a 37% increase in bread prices, affecting 40% of the population living below the poverty line. Rust and mildew diseases annually cause yield losses of 15-20%, necessitating the deployment of genetically resistant cultivars.
However, the emergence of new virulent pathogen races poses challenges, prompting the exploration of alternative strategies. In response to rising Iron Deficiency Anaemia (IDA) rates, Egypt initiated a national program in collaboration with the World Food Programme to fortify wheat flour with iron and folic acid. While effective, fortification is an active intervention strategy, whereas the project aims to implement biofortification, offering a more sustainable solution once introduced and adopted by farmers.
Pakistan’s goal of achieving wheat production self-sufficiency aligns with the project’s objectives. The impact of high iron wheat is particularly relevant in addressing health disparities, as IDA disproportionately affects women and children in impoverished communities.
Kenya, like Egypt and Pakistan, is actively promoting policies to boost local wheat production. With a prevalence of IDA in a significant portion of pre-school children and women, Kenya’s Agricultural and Food Authority’s Wheat Purchase Programme incentivizes millers to prioritize local wheat over imports. The established genome editing guidelines in Kenya provide a clear framework, exempting genome-edited organisms from GMO regulations under the Biosafety Act.
Partnerships with organizations such as AGIS in China have significantly contributed to the project, providing essential support for sequencing and data analysis. Collaborators in Pakistan, Egypt, and Kenya bring extensive experience and capabilities for conducting field trials of wheat, including state-of-the-art facilities for pathology assays. The strategic choice of countries ensures the project’s relevance and impact on a global scale.
Q. Why will collaboration with scientific partners be so important in this project?
ICARDA and CIMMYT have successfully broadened the genetic base of their modern wheat lines through both conventional and genomic approaches. These centres boast exceptional capabilities in genetics, biometrics, and trait introgression. Acting as catalysts, ICARDA and CIMMYT actively deploy innovative technologies and germplasm tailored to specific wheat production environments globally, while fostering strong partnerships with National Agricultural Research and Extension Services (NARES).
Additionally, ICARDA and the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development (NISD) contribute expertise in gender for breeding research, facilitating the realization of impactful outcomes. Both CGIAR and NISD bring extensive experience in monitoring, evaluation, and learning within research projects compliant with Official Development Assistance (ODA) standards.
Partners in Pakistan, Egypt, and Kenya bring extensive experience and capabilities for conducting wheat field trials, including the use of modern glasshouses for pathology assays in Njoro and ARC-Egypt. JIC possesses all the necessary facilities for transformation, molecular biology, and plant growth, along with proven expertise in genome editing, field trials, and genomic approaches. The collaborative efforts among these partners enable the project to push the boundaries of breeding, facilitating the exchange of knowledge and technology, particularly in regions like Egypt, Pakistan, and Kenya, where the impact can be maximized. This collaborative network ensures a comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges in wheat production and advancing the field of breeding.
Q. How do you see this project evolving over the next few years and beyond?
This project anticipates fostering a more aligned collaboration between JIC’s wheat initiatives and the strategic goals of CGIAR, while also establishing stronger connections with National Agricultural Research and Extension Services (NARES) partners. The envisioned outcomes encompass field testing of genome editing targets in CGIAR cultivars, evaluating them for additional traits within NARES partners. The project aims to enhance training and build capacity within NARES, as well as at JIC and among UK partners.
Genome editing is expected to become an integral part of the broader breeding approaches employed by CGIAR, facilitating the integration of genomics within their breeding pipelines. The initiative also seeks to establish a clear pathway for the introduction of genebank diversity. Furthermore, the project aims to cultivate closer ties with policymakers in partner countries, providing guidance and examples in the field to inform the regulation of genome editing. Additionally, collaborative efforts will be directed towards working with seed systems to provide training on genome editing, elucidating both the potential benefits and limitations of this technology. This comprehensive approach ensures that the project contributes to advancing genomic research, capacity building, and policy engagement within the broader context of CGIAR and its partnerships.