A two week long quest to get the hang of Genomic Selection

Genomic selection (GS) is a genetics tool that involves selecting individuals in a breeding population (plants or animals) according to their entire genetic potential for a trait, rather than because of the presence of a specific gene associated with that trait. Since the early 2010s, this tool has been applied in plant breeding to improve polygenic traits such as drought resistance and yield in wheat – targets that are difficult to track with traditional molecular markers. The method of genomic selection relies heavily on principles of statistics and quantitative genetics, and is supported by the ability of high-throughput techniques to easily generate thousands of SNP marker data points. It has been shown to accelerate breeding programmes by making it more effective and directed.

GS has not been applied in local wheat breeding programmes yet. With that in mind, we applied for Mss Elsabet Wessels (project lead on the wheat marker-assisted selection (MSL) programme at CenGen), and Lezaan Hess (breeder in the wheat pre-breeding programme at the Stellenbosch University Plant Breeding Laboratory) to attend the Quantitative Methods in Plant Breeding course at NIAB in Cambridge, UK, in March 2020. Like with most other events last year, the course was not immune to the effects of Covid-19. What was supposed to be a two week in-person meeting became an online course a year later in March 2021.

It was an intense, tough course that covered all statistical and genetic aspects of a breeding programme. Topics such as trial design and analysis, association- and QTL mapping, quantitative genetics and genomic selection were discussed and practically illustrated with real data in the programming language R. A key message of the course was that the proper designing of breeding programmes is becoming ever more critical as target traits are getting more complex. Breeding well-adapted cultivars is an expensive, integrated science and breeders need the support of experts in several different fields (such as statistics) to be able to meet the demands of modern agriculture and climatic changes. By attending this course, Elsabet and Lezaan learnt how they can provide support to our local breeders in their respective professional roles and what is needed to implement GS as a breeding strategy. They also connected with experts in the GS field and have established relationships with them that are sure to be long-term.

We are thankful towards the Winter Cereal Trust for providing us with the funding to attend this very informative and enriching course.

The QMPB course class of 2021. The course presenter, Dr Keith Gardner, is highlighted in yellow.