Liam Barratt

Future-proofing Our Food: Increasing Tolerance to Abiotic Stress in Hexaploid Bread Wheat Using Associative Transcriptomics

About me

I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of York, graduating with an MBiol in Biology (Biotechnology and Microbiology). Throughout the course of my undergraduate study, my interest shifted from the study of microbes, to plant biology and how genetics can be used to help solve global issues, such as food security. The Harper Lab use powerful statistical genetics approaches to identify regions of the genome controlling agriculturally-relevant traits in crop species with complex polyploid genomes, with the goal of improving global food security and nutrition.

So, as part of my masters project, I worked in the Harper Lab and used differential expression analysis in an attempt to identify genes controlling heat tolerance traits in Triticum aestivum. This PhD project is now an excellent opportunity to develop this work further, and investigate new questions about abiotic stress tolerance in bread wheat, using different statistical genetics approaches.

My project

Bread wheat is one of the most important crops worldwide; providing 4.5 billion people with 20% of their daily caloric and protein intake. However, due to the rapidly increasingly global population, yield of key crops must increase by 50%, by the year 2050. Achieving such a yield increase in wheat will be challenging, as the changing climate is already causing huge yield losses globally. In other crop species, Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) have been used successfully to identify genomic regions associated with increased abiotic stress tolerance. However, conducting conventional GWAS in polyploid crops, such as wheat, is very complicated due to the extensive presence of untranscribed repeat sequences.

The related approach, Associative Transcriptomics (AT), circumvents these difficulties via the use of RNA-seq data, and therefore allows genomic regions associated with increased abiotic stress tolerance to be identified, even in polyploid crop species. This will be the first use of AT to identify genetic markers significantly associated with increased tolerance to multiple abiotic stresses, in wheat landraces. To do this, data will be collected on a number of traits indicative of abiotic stress tolerance, under separate and combined stress conditions, for use in AT analyses. This project will then elucidate how these markers act within the cell to cause the observed phenotypes, using various molecular biology and bioinformatics approaches.