Annual meeting of the UK Rice Research Consortium

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Published on: May 8, 2019

University of Nottingham: May 2nd-3rd 2019.

As you can read elsewhere on the GARNet blog, the Monogram Network consists of UK based researchers with an active interest in small grain cereals and grasses. Although this encompasses a range of different plant species, over recent years the Monogram annual meeting has focused on world-leading UK research in barley and wheat. In addition each meeting usually include at least a half-day session focused on UK research on other plants such as rice or brachypodium.

However a small group of researchers is actively looking to build the UK Rice Research community. Over the past two years the BBSRC has supported a two-day meeting aimed at community-building and exploring the potential for resource development in the UK within this research area.

This years UK Rice Research Consortium meeting was held at the end of Monogram2019 at the University of Nottingham. This arrangement was successful in persuading the group of PIs to stay on and contribute to this community-building exercise.  The meeting was led by Ari Sadanandom  from Durham University and Erik Murchie at the host institution.

When you do some research it is clear that there is a surprising high amount of rice-focused research already happening in the UK. This ranges from the large groupings in (perhaps surprisingly) Aberdeen, Sheffield and NIAB (PDF) through to smaller individuals pockets around the country . The UK Rice Research Consortium website ( is managed by Andy Jones at the University of Liverpool and is becoming a growing repository of information about UK-focused activities.

Arguably the biggest road-block to building this community is that rice cannot be grown in the field in the UK (at least not before significant climate change :/) and is therefore not a significant contributor to UK agriculture. However throughout the meeting it was clear that all attendees considered that the main internationally recognised strength of UK Rice research is in answering fundamental questions in plant biology. This strength will be key in the development of new varieties in collaboration with overseas institutions who have the capacity to undertake large field trials.

The meeting was split into two main phases: Firstly a set of speakers gave a global perspective on the current status of rice research. Rod Wing from the University of Arizona outlined his collaborations that have recently sequenced 3010 diverse accession of rice. This highlights that the diploid Oryza sativa genome (430Mb) is a more manageable size when compared to bread wheat (14.5Gb)! However even with the enormous amount of genome information the impression that came across from the meeting was that there currently a lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to the provision of genomic resources that will bring together this vast amount of information.

To show what can be possible in this regard, Cristobal Uauy from the John Innes Centre presented the remarkable progress that the global wheat community has made in the generation of resources and in acceptance of a genomic assemblies and annotations. With some planning the UK rice research community should be able to take an international leadership role in the development of equivalent rice resources.

Cristobal updates the progress of the wheat commuity.

Usha Vijayraghavan (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore) and Xinguang Zhu (Chinese Academy of Sciences) provided an introduction to their fundamental research in rice that has looked at floral development or in making improvements in photosynthesis respectively. Usha has taken knowledge from the genes identified in Arabidopsis to understand how they function during the development of branched inflorescence meristems in rice (JXBot paper). Xinguang and his colleagues in the RIPE and eRice projects have targeted a range of strategies to enhance photosynthesis, which have resulted in remarkable improvements of up to 15% in field trials.

Ajay Kohli on the myriad challenges to rice production

The final international talk was from Ajay Kohli at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) who highlighted that ‘everyone wants rice’ and the importance of including social considerations in any global strategies to advance the sustainability of more efficient rice varieties that can be used by small holders across Asia. Kohli proposed that the UK community can link with IRRI by contributing both upstream (by developing fundamental knowledge) and downstream (by providing mechanistic understanding for newly bred varieties) discoveries.

Ajay Kohli reports that everyone wants rice!

In the second phase of the meeting, Sadanandom and Murchie led a series of group discussions that had the aim of developing a roadmap for UK rice research. Overall the strengths of UK rice research are in fundamental areas of discovery, in the excellence of genomic resources, within a collaborative outlook to research and in community-facing transformation resources. The challenges include the actual growth of the plant and therefore in persuading funders of the importance of supporting something that is not currently a large portion of the UK research portfolio.

However the UK Rice Industry is significant, according to both The Rice Association and more anecdotally from the public enjoyment of curry! Clearly there is potential for interactions between local and international agri-tech companies and the UK research community; both in the support of studentships or in providing space for downstream field trials.

Overall this second UK Rice Consortium meeting was an extremely positive experience and there is significant motivation to grow the community. Importantly UK researchers already have major overseas collaborators that support their research and the production of a ‘Rice Roadmap’ will define the future direction of the community.

The UKRRC group. Photo from @HuwJonesLabour

Watch out for updates on the Consortium website and on social media at #UKRiceResearch and @ukrrc.  The 2020 meeting will be hosted at Rothamsted Research.

Monogram 2019

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Published on: May 8, 2019

By Sophie Harrington at the John Innes Centre

This year I attended the UK Monogram conference for the third and final time in my PhD. It was a pleasure to have another opportunity to engage with the UK small grains community, both with the academics and the breeding companies that attend.

The conference opened with a brilliant plenary talk by Professor Keith Edwards from the University of Bristol, sharing his thoughts on the origin of variation within Triticum aestivum, hexaploid bread wheat. His talk highlighted the continuation of hybridisation between hexaploid wheat and its tetraploid parents as a result of mixed cultivation. The impacts of this hybridisation can still be seen in the genomes of hexaploid wheat varieties today.

Sophie giving her MECEA award talk. From @malcolmacaulay

This theme of natural genetic variation continued to thread throughout the conference, with the importance of tapping into the diversity present in landraces and wild wheats highlighted during a panel discussion session on the second day. A particularly intriguing example of variation in the grasses was discussed by Dr. Luke Dunning, when he spoke about the evidence for lateral gene transfer in the grasses. This was quite a different method for obtaining variation in grasses compared to what had previously been discussed in the conference and naturally the resounding question in the audience following his talk was how exactly such lateral gene transfer could occur! I’m sure many people are looking forward to hearing what comes out of this story in the future.

Monogram this year also had a substantial focus on methods and platforms that we can use to increase the quality and utility of our data. From the very first session, exploring the bioinformatics tools available for the cereals, it was clear that within the past few years a substantial leap in the quality and quantity of informatics tools available for wheat and barley has occurred. It was thrilling to hear of the large new datasets available for the public, from the wheat transcriptome through to the so-called barley “variome.” Moving beyond bioinformatics, we were also exposed to the potential of using machine learning in our research, as Dr. Laura-Jayne Gardiner from IBM Research highlighted the many biological and agricultural projects in which IBM has successfully applied machine learning technology. This seems to be an area that has substantial potential to tap into the hidden value of the large datasets being developed particularly in cereal genomics.

Of course, without studying the plants themselves it can be difficult (if not impossible) to turn genomic data into biologically relevant information. To that end, the discussion of new phenotyping platforms and consortiums, such as the EU-funded EMPHASIS project, highlighted new ways to increase the throughput and fidelity of phenotyping data.

The importance of establishing a framework for data labelling and curation was also highlighted.

Overall, the 2019 Monogram conference was an excellent opportunity to hear about the cutting-edge research in cereals taking place in the UK and abroad. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend with a GARNet travel bursary, and to receive the Monogram Early Career Award for a PhD researcher. I’m already looking forward to next year!

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