Archive | October, 2014

Harvest Moon and the Wheat Wizard

 

Harvest Moon 05

Statue of Sir Rowland Biffen with some historic wheat varieties from the Germ Plasm Resources Unit, John Innes Centre

In September the John Innes Centre celebrated the life and work of plant breeder Rowland Biffen, one of the key figures documented in the Plant Breeding Institute archives which were transferred to JIC archives after the Institute was privatised in 1987. The celebration was planned around a huge wooden desk ‘Biffen’s Desk’ which has stood in our Conference Centre at Norwich since its transfer from the old Plant Breeding Institute site in Trumpington, Cambridge. We recruited an intern to design an innovative exhibition around this artefact, tapping into the University of East Anglia’s internship scheme (a scheme to give paid work experience opportunities to recent UEA graduates). This blog is based on our intern Megan Penney’s work.

_DSC9288 Rowland Biffen Lantern slide: wheat ears

Wheat ears from Rowland Biffen’s collection of glass lantern slides, John Innes Archives

 

Megan began by exploring the archive which included exploiting some uncatalogued glass lantern slides that belonged to Biffen for projection onto walls and poster displays. These images were combined with examples of historic wheat plants sourced from JIC’s Germ Plasm Resource Unit, and Biffen artefacts from the archives, to bring Biffen’s history alive. Megan was also able to cleverly integrate JIC’s modern time-lapse photography of a growing wheat field into the exhibition. By up-ending a couple of the old and stained desk drawers and projecting the film into them she cleverly ‘antiqued’ the moving images.

Harvest Moon 42 Nikolai Adamski talks about wheat

JIC crop scientist Nikolai Adamski explaining how today’s wheat geneticists are unlocking wheat’s natural diversity

 

 

 

 

The exhibition was presented to the Friends of John Innes on the 8th September in an event titled ‘Harvest Moon and the Wheat Wizard’ and the evening also featured informal talks from our present and future wheat wizards, Philippa Borrill and Nikolai Adamski. Christine and David Hill gave the farmers’ perspective on the challenges of wheat farming today.

 

 

Rowland Biffen at his desk with giant wheat ear

Rowland Biffen examines a giant ear of wheat staged by Cambridge University Agriculture students to playfully convey aspirations for the future of wheat breeding

So why celebrate Biffen? Biffen more than anyone else is associated with the establishment of modern plant breeding in Britain. Some of the principal organisations for crop improvement, especially the Plant Breeding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Botany at Cambridge, were established to accommodate his plant breeding and genetics. His two wheat varieties Little Joss (1910) and Yeoman (1916) were popular with farmers and his work on yellow rust resistance opened up the exciting prospect of uniting genetics with plant pathology. Though at the beginning Biffen had to contend with some teasing about his introduction of ‘bread studies’ to an ancient University, he ended up being dubbed the ‘wheat wizard’ and his standing with contemporaries secured him a knighthood. His Institute afterwards went on to establish the genetic basis of key traits and identify sources of variation to breed better crops, while also contributing to advances in crop science and plant breeding methods. His legacy continues in JIC’s Biffen Building today.

 

_DSC9279 Lab interior, where bread making qualities were studied

‘Bread studies’: bread making qualities were studied in the lab

 

More info:

For a brief sketch of Rowland Biffen and Plant Breeding Institute history, see http://www.trumpingtonlocalhistorygroup.org/subjects_PBIhistory.html

And the JIC Centenary timeline: https://www.jic.ac.uk/centenary/history-timeline.htm (entries for 1912, 1967, 1987, 1990, 1994).

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Two recent University of Leeds PhD theses take a deeper look at the development of plant breeding in Britain, including Biffen’s role:

Berris Charnley PhD (2011)

http://ipbio.org/pdfs/papers/charnley-berris-agricultural-science-and-the-emergence-of-a-mendelian-system-in-britain-1880-1930.pdf

Dominic Berry PhD (2014)

https://www.academia.edu/7608288/WHOLE_THESIS_Genetics_Statistics_and_Regulation_at_the_National_Institute_of_Agricultural_Botany_1919-1969

 

For more information about the JIC seed bank (Germ Plasm Resources Unit) from which Megan sourced her historic wheat samples, see https://www.jic.ac.uk/research/germplasm-resources-unit/

 

For more information on today’s Wheat Improvement programme (a collaboration between five UK research institutes), see https://www.jic.ac.uk/research/wheat-improvement/our-science/

The John Innes Centre is responsible for the Landrace pillar of research.

 

A selection of the exhibition materials Megan designed can be seen permanently on display around Biffen’s desk in the JIC Conference Centre. We plan to re-use the portable elements in this exhibit in future JIC events.

 

 

 

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