Monogram 2019 by Emily Marr

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Published on: May 22, 2019

Emily Marr, NIAB and the University of Cambridge,

After hearing scientists at NIAB (Cambridge) wax lyrical about Monogram year on year, I finally attended the conference this April, in the third year of my PhD. Monogram is an annual meeting for the small-grain cereal and grass research community, bringing together academics, commercial scientists and plant breeders. This year, it seemed that there were more presenters from Universities than previously; it is encouraging to see the University community becoming more engaged in the food system at a time when Food Security is a growing issue.

Monogram 2019 was held on the Jubilee Campus of the University of Nottingham, which – aside from the unexpected shattering of a glass window in the café (it couldn’t contain its excitement about Monogram) – proved to be a fantastic venue with excellent green credentials boosted by on-site lakes used for heating and cooling systems, solar panels and green roofs.

The meeting kicked off with a Bioinformatics session, an area that plays a significant role in the development of the agricultural sector. We received an overview of the genetic resources available for cereals online and a reminder that although new resources are constantly emerging, we must not forget the old resources, which can be just as useful.

The meeting continued with eight sessions: Below and Above Ground Processes, Phenotyping, Abiotic and Biotic Stress, Reproduction and Grain Development, Genomics and Technologies for Crop Improvement, Future Plant Sciences, Quality & Nutrition, Rice and Other Grasses.

The first day ended with a poster session, accompanied by wine and a BBQ. With a total of 76 posters, there was a lot to talk about. Topics ranged from molecular-scale research to large-scale phenotyping.

Poster session in full flow. Photo from @BazRaubach

From a personal point of view, the poster session catalysed a meeting with someone whose previous PhD student had worked with the same wheat mapping population as me, investigating a similar phenotype as the one I am focusing on. It was a fantastic to have the opportunity to compare results.

As a root researcher, I was particularly tuned into the talks on roots which featured heavily in the session entitled “Below and Above Ground Processes”. Root system architecture, the spatial configuration of roots in the soil, has often been overlooked in crop breeding due to the challenge of phenotyping organs below ground. However, it is becoming more of a hot topic as roots represent a target for improving the ability of crops to maintain high yield in spite of increasing exposure to drought. We heard from Vera Hecht about the impact of sowing density on root traits in barley from a phenotypic point of view. Linking in to this, Tom Bennett talked about the root density-sensing system in wheat as a means to regulate root and shoot growth. Silvio Salvi talked us through the role of mutant screens and bulk segregant analysis in providing information about position and effect of QTLs affecting root genetic variation.

Silvio Salvi on roots. Photo from @GuilleMendiondo

Richard Whalley focussed on the interaction of soil architecture and deep rooting while Alek Ligeza turned his attention to the relationship between roots and nitrogen uptake.

Overall it was a highly engaging conference that I highly recommend to anyone working with cereals. [Next year’s meeting will be at the James Hutton Institute- Ed].

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