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Strategies to optimise pollination of the UK field bean crop

 

glover1iCASE studentship with PGRO, supervisor Lea Herold

Project outline:

This project represents a collaboration between academic and industrial partners. The Glover lab is focused on understanding the evolution and development of pollinator-attracting traits of flowers. PGRO is the UK's centre of excellence for peas and beans, acting as the primary reference point for all aspects of temperate pulse and vegetable-legume crop production, marketing and economics in the UK and providing advice for growers, in terms of improved crop yield, quality and economics.

Pollination is an essential part of the production of our food supply, with approximately one third of our food resulting from animal (usually insect) pollination. Ensuring an adequate supply of pollinators is essential to maintain global food security, but a number of factors are currently combining to threaten crop pollination. Pollinator populations have declined in many parts of the world, and it is likely that climate change will further uncouple relationships between plants and the insects that they rely on.

Against this backdrop we are interested in exploring strategies to maximise pollination of the UK field bean crop. Field beans are used as animal feed, providing an important protein supply because, like other legumes, they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. They also play an important role in human nutrition, particularly through export markets but with growing consumer interest in the UK too. However, recent observations suggest that pollination service is beginning to limit crop yields in field beans and may account for some of the yield variability which frequently occurs in the crop.

Our approach will be to explore strategies for optimising field bean flowers to provide maximum energetic reward to pollinators for minimum foraging energy expenditure. This will have the dual benefit of increasing pollinator attraction to current crops, thus increasing yield, while also supporting wild pollinator populations, thus increasing future pollinator population sizes (and thus future yield).

The field bean flower is a complex structure, with a strongly bilaterally symmetrical shape. It requires considerable strength from a large pollinator, such as a bumblebee, to open the flower and trigger pollination. The petals are mainly smooth-surfaced, which can be slippery for bees to handle. The flower colour and scent might also be sub-optimal.

We will use a combination of analytical, molecular genetic and behavioural ecology techniques to explore strategies to enhance pollination. We will screen commercially grown lines for variation in pollinator-relevant traits and identify genetic variation of potential use in breeding programmes. We will use molecular genetic approaches to explore the development of key traits, including some of floral symmetry, petal texture, flower colour and scent. Using our caged bumblebee facility we will assess how the variations we identify influence pollinator behaviour. Any lines that appear to attract additional pollinators or facilitate pollinator handling will be trialled in greenhouses with enclosed bumblebee colonies, to assess the effects on fruit set. Such lines will then be tested in field conditions at PGRO’s field trials site, to explore yield under natural conditions and to develop strategies for future selective breeding of the UK field bean crop.

Please do not apply for this project if you know you are allergic to bee stings.

References

  1. Bailes, E., Pattrick, J., Ollerton, J. & Glover, B.J. (2015) How can an understanding of plant-pollinator interactions contribute to global food security? Current Opinion in Plant Biology 26, 72-79.