Warwick HRI, the University of Warwick’s plant research Department, has created a stand at the world famous RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London this week. However the star exhibit in their garden won’t be multicoloured flowers or a soothing water feature. The Warwick HRI stand will show how far scientists have reached in breeding a range of "Super Broccoli" and its wider brassica family which will: help us live longer, last longer on our shelves, and use much less pesticide and fertilizer.
The stand will have a range of plants from the brassica family, broccoli and oilseed rape being the most important commercial crops. Breeding better crops entails crossing plants which possess the best properties, usually from within the same crop (for instance restricting oneself to just cross breeding broccoli with another type of broccoli). However, this approach misses out the vast range of useful properties in the larger brassica family.
The Warwick HRI researchers are well equipped to change that situation as they have one of the largest gene banks of vegetable brassicas in the world. With over 6,000 plants in the gene bank the Warwick HRI research teams have an invaluable resource enabling them to carry out their research. This breeding work on broccoli alone is on course to transform it into a super plant in the following ways:
Environmentally friendly Super Broccoli – Researchers have identified cross breeding possibilities that will give broccoli much greater resistance to two of its greatest threats – aphids and the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. This will vastly reduce the amount of pesticides that have to be used on broccoli. This breeding programme will probably be complete within a decade.
Longer lasting Super Broccoli – Broccoli is one of the most difficult vegetables to keep fresh. Supermarkets find this particularly annoying as most of their vegetables are brought in on a 4 day cycle whilst broccoli’s feeble shelf life means it is out of phase with other vegetable deliveries as it requires its own 3 day cycle. Adding just one more day to its shelf life would make customers happier and supermarkets would be overjoyed. The researchers have already taken the first steps to cross breed broccoli with a longer shelf life and expect the first commercially available varieties to be hitting shelves (and staying longer on them……) again within a decade.
Super Broccoli makes longer lasting humans – Broccoli is a rich source of antioxidants which have a number of health properties including defending against cancers. However broccoli’s short shelf life means those important antioxidants quickly break down and can lose much of their power before being consumed. The cross breeding programme creating longer shelf life will also ensure the antioxidants remain potent for longer.
Oilseed rape oils the wheels of industry – Another member of the brassica family – Oilseed rape – is playing a key role in providing biodegradable oils that can be used to manufacture a range of environmentally favourable products. However the range of special designer oils available from this plant source is limited. The Warwick HRI team have begun to experiment with expanding the range of designer oils available by cross breeding the oil seed rape with other brassicas. Being able to produce designer oils from carbon neutral vegetation is crucial to sustainable manufacturing.
Even Super Broccoli needs bodyguards – As well as a programme of cross breeding the University of Warwick stand will show a selection of companion plants that can be grown alongside broccoli. These plants will not impact on the growth of the broccoli but they act as a major diversion for pests that would otherwise attack the broccoli.
Source: University of Warwick. May 2006