Seed World

United Kingdom – Leading Scientists Call For Unified Approach to Plant and Animal Breeding

In a paper published last week in the international journal Nature Genetics, scientists from NIAB, The University of Edinburgh’s The Roslin Institute and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) assert that global collaboration and investment across the two disciplines is central to increasing agricultural productivity and resilience.

Exploiting scientific critical mass and the high volume of available genomic data about plant and animal species that is now available would help to address questions that are common to both disciplines. This would lead to ‘game changing’ advances in breeding while simultaneously creating a platform for new scientific discoveries and ‘products’ – such as plants that can grow with less water or lower levels of nutrients – that may be of particular benefit to the developing world.

Professor Wayne Powell, Principal and Chief Executive of SRUC, co-authored the paper with Professor Ian Mackay, Head of Quantitative Genetics at NIAB, Tinashe Chiurugwi, former NIAB Research Scientist and Professor John Hickey, Chair of Animal Breeding at The Roslin Institute.

“Genomic selection has made it possible for the first time since the dawn of agriculture to carry out genetic selection without relying on the assessment of visible characteristics, known as phenotyping,” said Powell.

“Genomics provides a common technology base, allowing the bringing together of plant and animal breeding that would create a step change in the rate of genetic gain for crops, livestock and aquaculture while also providing a very strong platform for new discoveries. Not only will we be able to produce new varieties and breeds, we will also have a better understanding of the biological processes that underpin their performance.

“We already have examples of where genomic selection is making major changes in the private sector, such as its use in the dairy industry where the interval between generations of cattle has been shortened from five to two years. However, there is a huge opportunity for it to be used to deliver public good by bringing benefits to the developing world.”

The unification of animal and plant breeding will require a coordinated global effort by scientists and research funders, the advancement of scientific skills and the development of new partnerships spanning the public and private sectors, say the authors.

“While plant and animal breeding have the same roots and the same goals, they have diverged somewhat over the decades due to biologically induced requirements for different technical approaches. Genomic selection is the technology through which they can again coalesce. This will require new ways of structuring breeding programmes and the research programmes that support them, Professor Hickey said.

The Nature Genetics paper was the result of the ‘Implementing Genomic Selection in CGIAR Breeding Programs’ workshop which brought public and private plant and animal breeders together with genomics technology vendors. The workshop was funded by the food security research consortium CGIAR and the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).


  • Publication: Genomic prediction unifies animal and plant breeding programs to form platforms for biological discovery is published in Nature Genetics, September 2017. DOI: 10.1038/ng.3920
  • World population is expected to reach 9 billion within the next 35 years, requiring a 70-100% increase in food production relative to current levels. Additional factors including changing lifestyles population demographics, climate change and dwindling natural resources add to the threat to global food security
  • Responding to this threat requires considerable financial, intellectual and research investment in agriculture, particularly in the developing world. Breeding of livestock and crops is regarded as one of the key means of increasing production efficiency and sustainability.
  • CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform

About NIAB

National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) is a major international centre in plant research, crop evaluation and agronomy – a unique national resource, with nearly 100 years of experience and an internationally recognised reputation for independence, innovation and integrity. With headquarters in Cambridge and regional offices across the country, NIAB spans the crop development pipeline, with the specialist knowledge, skills and facilities required to support the improvement of agricultural and horticultural crop varieties, to evaluate their performance and quality, and to ensure these advances are transferred into on-farm practice through efficient agronomy.

About Scotland’s Rural College

Scotland’s Rural College supports innovation and sustainable development in agriculture and the rural sector in Britain and internationally. We are one of the UK’s leading agriculturally-focused higher education institutions, offering a unique blend of research, education and consultancy. SRUC’s research and education activities operate from six campuses and eight farms and research centres across Scotland. Our consultancy arm, SAC Consulting, supports more than 12,000 farms and rural businesses across the UK from 25 consultancy offices and eight veterinary disease surveillance centres.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £473 million in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.