Wheat researcher wins prestigious fellowship

December 8, 2014

Murdoch University wheat expert Dr Hollie Webster has won a prestigious international fellowship to carry out research in Germany and Mexico for six months.

The inaugural KWS-Borlaug Stipendium will see Dr Webster work on research related to the breeding of wheat for tolerance to drought and frost stress, both of which are major causes of yield loss in important wheat growing regions across the globe.

KWS is one of the world’s largest agricultural crop breeding companies and Dr Webster will be based at its headquarters in Einbeck, Germany. Her work will encompass the priorities of CIMMYT (The International Centre for Wheat and Maize Improvement), which is a global non-profit research and development organisation based in Mexico that maintains the world’s largest maize and wheat seed bank.

Dr Webster overcame competition from an international pool of experienced scientists to secure the fellowship. Importantly this opportunity will also help Dr Webster and the team of wheat genomics experts at Murdoch build enduring research collaborations with key international partners.

“Being a researcher in Australia, you are somewhat isolated, but in the increasingly competitive world of research, it is important to stay connected with the international community and be performing among the best,” said Dr Webster.

A key strategy of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), which is a major funder of crop research in Australia, is to connect internationally and deliver research value to Australian farmers regionally.

Dr Webster said the fellowship would allow her to pursue GRDC’s objective.

“I’ll be drawing on wheat research innovations overseas and then leveraging this new knowledge in domestic wheat genomics research programs, ultimately with the aim of contributing to the development of new stress tolerant, high yielding varieties for Australian farmers,” she said.

“One of the most important challenges crop researchers in pre-breeding face is being able to translate research findings into tangible gains for industry through yield-profit increases.

“To do this we need to connect with Australian and international plant breeders, like KWS and CIMMYT, so that our research findings are adopted in wheat breeding programs aimed at improving important agronomic traits such as yield stability and grain quality.”

Dr Webster was awarded the fellowship because of her expertise in the genetic determinants of pollen fertility in wheat, and how this developmental process is negatively affected by drought and frost stress.

“KWS is also particularly interested in utilising my knowledge of wheat reproductive fertility to help them to devise effective pollination control strategies necessary in hybrid wheat production programs,” explained Dr Webster.

“CIMMYT can also tap into my skills to advance their efforts to breed new wheat varieties that can withstand a high degree of stress during reproductive development but in doing so also maintain strong fertility levels.

“In arid wheat growing regions, like those found in areas of Australia, Africa, and China, drought induced pollen sterility can be a major cause of yield loss because sterile pollen leads to reduced pollination.

“If pollination doesn’t occur in the florets, where the immature grain embryos develop after the female ovum is fertilised, then no grain is formed.

“A similar situation also occurs in wheat growing regions situated in the Northern hemisphere.  These countries often grow long season winter wheats which frequently incur frost stress during reproductive development which also leads to pollen sterility and associated yield losses.”

Dr Webster is due to begin the fellowship in March 2015.

Notes to editors

The KWS Borlaug Stipendium is named after American biologist Norman Borlaug, who developed high yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties and then led their introduction to Mexico, Pakistan and India during the mid-20th century.

The massive increases in yield in these countries have been labeled the ‘Green Revolution’ and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.

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