Public Release: 

Accelerating forage breeding to boost livestock productivity

International expert skill-sets in genomics and bioinformatics enhance our capacity to breed improved forages for Africa

Earlham Institute

The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), with partners in the UK, Colombia and Kenya bring together their leading expertise in forage breeding for animal nutrition, cutting-edge genomics and phenomics technologies to accelerate the improvement of Brachiaria, a vital livestock feed crop in central Africa and Latin America.

More than 80 per cent of the world's agricultural land is for grazing to support the ever increasing demand for meat and milk for an expanding and growing urban population while boosting the income of rural families. The scarcity of grass feed is a worrying constraint standing in the way of this livestock productivity.

Some Brachiaria species have been cultivated as forage grasses, providing nutrition for ruminants across the globe. As well as nutrition, the grasses have desirable genetic characteristics linked to drought and pest-resistance and adaptation to poor and acidic soils. Over the past 25 years, several African species of Brachiaria have been used commercially as forages in the tropics; the most widely sown forage plant in tropical America.

With its combined high nutritional value and stress resistant properties, the Brachiaria breeding programme at CIAT is crossing different species to produce new varieties with superior traits. A particular Brachiaria species, B. decumbens, grants resistance to aluminium, which has a high concentration in acid soils. Most low-income livestock keepers live in tropical grasslands in countries in central Africa with great grazing potential but are vulnerable due to the growing problem of increasing acid soils and longer extreme weather seasons.

TGAC is working to identify high aluminium-resistant genes and chromosome regions in the Brachiaria genome, contributing to the international breeding programmes developing the new generation of forage crops. This genomic approach to forage breeding will help to produce varieties of high nutritional value under physical stresses, such as low soil fertility.

Strengthening and improving livestock forage-systems will contribute to the sustainability of food production while helping to reduce carbon dioxide and mitigating the effects of climate change. The international team of scientists will apply next generation sequencing (NGS) technologies and genomics to help improve forage breeding by reducing the length of the Brachiaria breeding cycle.

Ultimately, these approaches could be applied to other crop species. Future developments of the CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) Research Programmes will provide opportunities to leverage UK investment to support the internationalisation and expansion of UK agri-science.

Project lead, Sarah Ayling, Crop Genomics and Diversity Group Leader at TGAC, said: "Our scientists are working towards a common goal of increasing sustainable agriculture, and collaborations like this allow us to exploit our combined expertise to contribute to the important issue of food security.

"This project will deepen our interactions with international centres in Africa and Latin America, and improve forage breeding for livestock production."

Jose De Vega, co-project lead and Post-Doctoral Scientist in the Crop Genomics and Diversity at TGAC, added: "The most valuable part of the project is in relation to the link between tropical forage improvement and reducing poverty and ecosystems degradation. Improving livestock forages will give many small farmers in the tropics the opportunity to improve their livelihoods.

"Our experience in genomics of temperate forage species (cool weather species) will assist with the tropical species of forage grasses in our cross-continent collaborative project, bringing the power of genomic technologies to tropical forage breeding."

This project is in partnership with the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), UK, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia, and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Kenya. These activities are supported by a BBSRC International Partnering Award, which aims to support the development of long-term international collaborations, and funding from the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and British Council's Newton Fund, which through science and innovation partnerships, promotes the economic development and welfare of poor people in partnering countries.

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Notes to Editors

For more information, please contact:

Hayley London
Marketing & Communications Officer, The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC)
T: +44 (0)1603 450107
E: Hayley.London@tgac.ac.uk

About TGAC

The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) is a world-class research institute focusing on the development of genomics and computational biology. TGAC is based within the Norwich Research Park and receives strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) - £7.4M in 2013/14 - as well as support from other research funders. TGAC is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from BBSRC. TGAC operates a National Capability to promote the application of genomics and bioinformatics to advance bioscience research and innovation.

TGAC offers state of the art DNA sequencing facility, unique by its operation of multiple complementary technologies for data generation. The Institute is a UK hub for innovative Bioinformatics through research, analysis and interpretation of multiple, complex data sets. It hosts one of the largest computing hardware facilities dedicated to life science research in Europe. It is also actively involved in developing novel platforms to provide access to computational tools and processing capacity for multiple academic and industrial users and promoting applications of computational Bioscience. Additionally, the Institute offers a Training programme through courses and workshops, and an Outreach programme targeting schools, teachers and the general public through dialogue and science communication activities. http://www.tgac.ac.uk

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £467M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK's international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We create international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and build trust between them worldwide.

We work in more than 100 countries and our 8,000 staff - including 2,000 teachers - work with thousands of professionals and policy makers and millions of young people every year by teaching English, sharing the arts and delivering education and society programmes.

We are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter. A core publicly-funded grant provides 20 per cent of our turnover which last year was £864 million. The rest of our revenues are earned from services which customers around the world pay for, such as English classes and taking UK examinations, and also through education and development contracts and from partnerships with public and private organisations. All our work is in pursuit of our charitable purpose and supports prosperity and security for the UK and globally.

For more information, please visit: http://www.britishcouncil.org. You can also keep in touch with the British Council through http://twitter.com/britishcouncil andhttp://blog.britishcouncil.org/.

About the Newton Fund

The Newton Fund is a £375 million fund (£75 million a year for five years) which, through science and innovation partnerships aims to promote the economic development and welfare of poor people in developing countries. The Fund is overseen by the Department for Businesses Innovation and Skills (BIS) and delivered through 15 delivery partners in collaboration with 15 partnering countries. For more information visit: http://www.newtonfund.ac.uk

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