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DNA of the world’s largest collection of lettuce to be unravelled

It is to be the second largest DNA dataset of plants in the world, after the one for rice. The Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands, which is part of Wageningen University & Research, and China’s Beijing Genomics Institute have formed a unique partnership to unravel the DNA of the Wageningen lettuce collection. This is an important step towards a more sustainable agricultural sector that uses less pesticides.

To date, the gene bank had to make do with data on the origin of the material and the characteristics of the plants observed by researchers. The information that this partnership will generate paves the way to a ‘gene bank 2.0’. “This project has huge potential,” says Theo van Hintum of the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands (CGN). “We have been given access to a real treasure trove. Imagine if research on a variety of lettuce – or an entirely different plant – reveals that certain genes improve resistance to drought or a particular disease. We will then be able to look for lettuce varieties in our database that have very similar genes and predict which will be the best lettuce for breeding, without having to test them in the field. This is a revolutionary breakthrough!”

CGN’s lettuce collection is recognised as being the best and biggest in the world. The collection consists of 2401 samples representing all cultivated lettuce types and the most important wild species.

Predicting the possible characteristics of varieties could have revolutionary consequences for plant breeding. Because it will become much more efficient to identify the characteristics of material obtained from the gene bank (the aforementioned treasure trove), it will be much easier to modify varieties to resist new stress factors.

This will also have far-reaching consequences for the breeding process. The database can be used to develop DNA markers that can be used in the laboratory to identify the genes in a particular plant. This will allow plant breeders to select for characteristics such as resistance to disease in collections of thousands of seedlings, without actually having to cultivate and study the mature plants. Stronger varieties with better resistance will help to reduce the use of pesticides and so contribute to a more sustainable agricultural sector.

Huge amount of data
All the information collected by the researchers will eventually be made available to the world. “It is a huge job involving a huge amount of data and has never been done before to this scale,” says Van Hintum. “A similar project was conducted on rice, but because rice has a smaller genome, it involved a much smaller quantity of data. We aim to unravel the DNA of all our lettuce samples by 2020.”

Source: Wageningen University & Research
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