Breeding for the Ideal Amenity Grass

Marker-assisted breeding and genotype mapping may eliminate long-term field trials, bringing improved grass varieties to market – and to amenity turfs – in record time.

New processes at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS*) means plants can be tested as seedlings, reducing the time from initial development to completing STRI trials ­– which can take up to 15 years. Starting with base populations (native wild plants, hybrids, existing varieties, foreign introductions, and genetic manipulations), through to developing elite plants and replicating turf trial takes up to nine or ten years; STRI trials and Plants Breeders Rights can take another four to five years.

Plant breeding based on the outward appearance of a plant (the phenotype) can take between ten and 30 years to produce a commercial variety. Using genetic maps (developed from field and genetic data) enables breeding for traits such as stay-green ryegrass, while molecular markers may aid in early identification of other desired plant traits. 

The beginning
Basic and strategic grass genetics research at IGER started in the 1930s.  However, the 1987 partnership between British Seed Houses (BSH) and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS*) produced the only UK-based breeding programme producing varieties in the UK, for UK conditions. It is based in Aberystwyth, on the north-west coast of Wales.

Amenity-grass breeds AberElf, AberImp and AberSprite were used on Wimbledon tennis courts. However, their good performance was achieved to the detriment of the grass seed yield. Consequently, the IBERS breeding program is now stripped back to first principles and reinvigorated to work towards successfully combining the opposing turf traits of yield versus quality. Fine-leaved fescue and bent grass breeding programmes were re-launched in 1997.

Conservation, study, documentation and variation supply is available through The Genetic Resources Unit, used by breeding and research programmes at IBERS, Aberystwyth University, other National Institutes and the International Scientific Community. The Genebank has a documented collection of more than 25,000 accessions of temperate forage grasses and legumes.

Turf grass programme
IBERS’ plant breeding programme includes forage and amenity grasses, oats, forage legumes (white and red clover, Lotus), energy crops and lupins. The turf grass species are perennial ryegrass, browntop bent, and fine-leaved fescue (slender, chewings and sheeps fescue).

Sheena Duller, Grass Breeder, believes IBERS is now on the cutting edge of grass breeding. Her target traits include seed density, shoot density, colour (bright, light green), low disease incidence, and leaf fineness. Using turf plots and spaced plant trials, she looks for stress tolerance to mowing, wear, cold and winter survival, water logging, salt, UV light, disease and pests, and drought.

Duller maintains strict protocols for seed production purity, avoiding any pollen or weed contamination. This includes rigorous pollen control, precise data collection and careful plant handling and labelling.

Successful varieties need to fulfil many requirements, including confirmation with DUS testing, be sufficiently robust to cope with production on a commercial scale and withstand thorough crop inspections, and have consistency of leaf width, plant height and flowering date.

Better amenity grasses
Sustainable turf means plants that are pest and disease resistant, water efficient and with improved nutrient-use efficiency. Better soil management is achieved through control of weed, pests and disease.

BSH’s objective is the development of amenity-grass varieties suitable for lawns, sports and turf, with an emphasis on excellent turf quality and performance, together with improving seed yields to ensure commercial viability. UK-bred AberCharm will be available in commercial quantities from spring 2012, with AberRegal in 2013.

*Formed in 1990, the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) consisted of three research departments: plant, animal and microbial science; plant genetics and breeding; and soil, environmental and ecological sciences. It was absorbed by IBERS in April 2008, and then merged with the university.

IBERS has more than 300 staff, 1000+ students, and an annual income of more than £20million/year (Defra, BBSRC, WAG, TSB, EU, Industry). It intends to invest £50 million over the next 5 years in laboratories and scientific infrastructure.

Published in Turf Business