Science - January 8, 2004

Vegetable genomics project is breaking the ice

The joint PhD programme for vegetable genomics run by the Wageningen Plant Sciences Group and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science (CAAS) is starting to bear fruit. A genome laboratory has been set up in Beijing and thirteen Chinese researchers should obtain their PhD in two years’ time in Wageningen. A proposal for the first follow-up project, to research Chinese cabbage varieties with higher levels of health-promoting substances, has been submitted to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, KNAW, and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).

“We had to do a lot of path clearing first, but now it’s clear that a project like this has a lot to offer all parties. It’s a two-way traffic, and both partners derive benefit from good cooperation. China invests a lot in research and needs well-trained scientists. These people get good jobs, which often helps us to gain entrance to institutions where we would like to set up research projects. Once the ice has been broken, more doors open up.” This is the view of Dr Guusje Bonnema of the Plant Breeding Group, who is the Wageningen coordinator of the WU-CAAS programme.

At the end of 2003 Bonnema and her Chinese counterparts organised a workshop in China on plant genomics. Twenty Wageningen researchers also went to China to participate. “It was a big delegation. Because it’s a sandwich PhD programme, it’s important that the supervisors, promotors and co-promotors get to see what’s going on on the other side and meet the Chinese partners. Personal contacts are also even more important in China than they are here.”

Modernising plant research
The project itself stems from one of these personal relationships, between Professor Evert Jacobsen, chair of Plant Breeding, and a former PhD student of his, Qu Dongyu. At the time that the project started Qu Dongyu was director of the Institute for Vegetables and Flowers (IVF) in Beijing, one of the 38 CAAS institutes. In the meantime he has worked his way up to the position of vice-president of CAAS. Bonnema: “CAAS is the DLO of China and has its own graduate school that offers Masters and PhD programmes. At IVF they do mainly applied research; they develop varieties and bring new seeds onto the market. The director at the time wanted to modernise the institute, do more marker-assisted plant breeding and increase the amount of fundamental research.” The PhD programme was started two and a half years ago with support from the Wageningen Interdisciplinary Research and Education Fund (INREF) and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is a sandwich programme, consisting of a preparatory phase, the first research period and a final period in Wageningen. Most of the research itself, the sandwich filling, takes place in China.

“CAAS is very enthusiastic about the project and would like to submit 10 PhD students per year. They also want to broaden their research fields to include bioinformatics, food safety and health aspects. It will probably be difficult to find funding for these, and the sandwich formula is very labour intensive; supervision on both sides has to be good and well coordinated,” comments Bonnema.

Reducting pesticides
The vegetable project comes at a time of increasing focus on quality, hygiene and health aspects of the food production chain in China. Marker-assisted crop breeding is needed to be able to produce disease-resistant crops more quickly, so that the use of chemical pesticides can be reduced. To this end, a Joint Plant Genome Analysis Laboratory with the necessary DNA technology has been set up in Beijing. It was in this laboratory that Bonnema organised the course for breeders on high-throughput marker-assisted breeding, together with the Dutch seed company Enza Zaad and IVF-CAAS.

Bonnema: “We have introduced work meetings, seminars and literature discussions, all of which have vastly improved the research climate at the institute. As a result there is far more exchange of knowledge and experience between students and staff.” Contact with institutes that focus on nutrition, food safety and health are also encouraged, and is starting to get off the ground with the new project proposal which will examine the health promoting aspects of Chinese cabbage types (Brassica rapa). This project has now been submitted to KNAW-MOST for financing. Bonnema: “There are just as many Chinese cabbage types as in the Brassica oleracea group which is better known in the west, to which cauliflower, sprouts, red cabbage and curly kale belong. Dutch plant breeding companies have expressed interest in the project, as China is also an interesting market for them.”

Gert van Maanen.

More information on the WU-CAAS programme: www.wucaas.net

Re:act