WHEALBI – Improving European wheat and barley production

WHEALBI stands for the project ‘WHEAt and barley Legacy for Breeding Improvement’. The project originates from the principle that to improve wheat and barley production in order to face severe global changes, we need to better exploit knowledge from basic science to develop new varieties and innovative cropping systems.

The WHEALBI project will combine genomics, genetics and agronomy to improve European wheat and barley production in competitive and sustainable cropping systems. It will generate original data from expressed genome sequences of 1000 wheat and barley genetic resources and provide models and tools to integrate these data in breeding programmes and crop management.

The results will be disseminated to a broad user community, highlighting the benefits and issues associated with the adoption of what is considered sustainable and environmentally friendly wheat and barley crop production in a European context.

WHEALBI aims to help the EU remaining a major actor in small grain cereal production while addressing the pressing global priorities of increasing and stabilising primary production, improving food quality and safety, and reducing environmental impact.

The project

The project consists of 9 work packages (WP). Wageningen University & Research leads WP 4; Data integration and analysis tools.

WP 1: Identifying circa 1000 germplasm accessions representing genetic diversity in European agriculture

The main objective of WP1 is to identify and to provide diverse genetic resources for both barley and wheat, representing the genetic and agronomic characteristics required to meet the future challenges of European agriculture by 2050. DNAs and seeds will be provided for the whole project, and stored in biorepositories to be used by the scientific community in the future.

WP 2: Identify the nature and extent of gene sequence diversity in the wheat and barley genepool

The objectives of WP2 are to:

  1. Reveal the nature and extent of genome wide DNA sequence diversity in the exomes of >500 wheat and >500 barley accessions (from WP1)
  2. Establish robust pipelines for identifying and calling true sequence variations (including Quality Control of raw sequence data)
  3. Conduct genome wide analysis of the resulting data focussed on functional and adaptive variation and partitioning between different genepools.

WP 3: Phenotypic exploitation of the WHEALBI germplasm collection

WP3 relies on the germplasm selected and multiplied in WP1 and it will explore different phenotyping strategies designed to provide the phenotypic information required to complement the genomics data generated in WP2 and WP5.

A standard phenotypic approach based on nurseries across Europe will be established to test the wheat and barley collection for their adaptive capacity under different environmental conditions (referred to here as a “common garden” trial). Furthermore, precision phenotyping experiments dedicated to specific developmental traits, response to main biotic factors and response to drought will be carried out to exemplify the exploitation of the large phenotypic variability existing in germplasm. Field trials and advanced phenotyping platforms will be combined to achieve a precise determination of the phenotypes of interest.

WP 4: Data integration and analysis tools

Work package leader: Fred van Eeuwijk (WUR, the Netherlands)

The objectives of WP4 are to:

  1. Deploy a versatile infrastructure for storing, integrating and communicating massive amounts of heterogeneous data generated in the WHEALBI project; and provide machine and web-accessible interfaces to access, link and query data and data combinations.
    URGI, partner of WHEALBI has released the database of the 1000 wheat and barley genotypes. Access is free for wheat, but needs registration for barley. Information about the database can be found here.
  2. Develop and deploy efficient statistical tools to analyse single or multiple sources of data from within and beyond the WHEALBI project.

WP 5: Allele and pathway mining for adaptive traits and grain quality

Based on the resources generated in WP1, WP2, WP3 and WP4, allele-mining will be performed in WP5 to derive information on the diversity of known, relevant genes. In addition, gene-network based diversity mining (relying on data from WP3) will be used to decipher complex traits, particularly grain quality.

WP 6: Genome-assisted pre-breeding and breeding methods

The overall goal is to improve the utilization of genetic resources in pre-breeding of wheat and barley. The pre-breeding projects are grouped into two different strategies each using different methods. The first strategy applies to complex traits and involves associating genomic and phenotypic data from different population structures, all aimed at identifying and transferring a large number of novel alleles associated with yield into elite lines. A second strategy focuses on first identifying specific genomic regions or genes known to be responsible for important trait, including those from related wild species, and transferring these into elite wheat or barley varieties for further breeding purposes. Separately from these practical pre-breeding activities, we wish to increase our understanding of how best to utilize genomic selection in pre-breeding through simulation studies.

WP 7: Innovative crop management practices to identify wheat and barley ideotypes with enhanced performance

WP7 will (1) identify ideotypes that correlate with a high level of performance under low inputs, (2) develop novel phenotyping approaches to screen for traits associated with improved performance under low inputs, (4) evaluate the farmers’ economic interest to adopt new wheat and barley management practices in the light of the new Common Agricultural Policy.

WP 8: Dissemination, training and technology transfer

The objectives of this WP are to ensure dissemination and efficient use of the project outcomes: (i) through training, education of scientists as well as technology transfer, mainly to plant breeders; (ii) by sharing information with different stakeholders (farmers, cooperatives, plant breeders, transformers and end-users); (iii) by reaching general public with a major focus on students to encourage plant science studies and the emergence of more European “talents”; (iv) by providing information to policy makers; (v) by optimizing interactions with other EU running research projects on applied plant sciences.

WP 9: Project coordination and overall management

The coordination and overall management of the project will utilize the project management expertise of two partner institutions (INRA and INRA Transfert) together with the expertise of WP leaders

Selection of results:

  • Characterization of population structure and genetic diversity for circa 400 barley accessions using Exome sequence data
  • We propose statistical strategies that allow us combining information of multiple environments. That allowed us to identification of genomic regions (QTLs) underlying traits related to barley adaptation to diverse environments
  • Allele mining for genes within the QTL regions
  • Explore whether there is a relation between important alleles and the geographical origin of barley genotypes
Allele Mining