TV tonight: Could genetics hold the key for Irish farming?

Two Teagasc researchers – Dr. Noirin McHugh and Dr. Ewen Mullins – will be appearing on RTE One tonight to discuss genetics and how improved research and technology in the area could have a dramatic impact on Irish farming.

Dr. McHugh is working on the Teagasc INZAC Flock project in Athenry, which is comparing genetic differences between Irish and New Zealand sheep.

Imported to Ireland in 2014 and 2015, the New Zealand ewes were selected based on their superiority for maternal-type traits.

By collecting information on lambing, growth, health, feed intake and carcass traits, the primary goal is to increase understanding of genetics – and potentially breed Irish sheep with New Zealand sheep (which is currently being trialled on selected Irish farms) to improve the yield and general practice.

McHugh will speak about this project on tonight’s episode of ’10 things to know about… Genetics’, which will be broadcast at 8:30pm.

Commenting on her subject area, the researcher explained: “Early results from the INZAC flock have highlighted the importance of genetics in improving animal characteristics such as lambing performance, ewe milk yield, lamb growth and thereby overall flock performance.

This emphasises the critical role of genetics in improving productivity within the Irish sheep flock.

Meanwhile, the controversial topic of ‘Gene Editing’ will also be discussed on the same programme, specifically CRISPR – a “powerful technology that’s being used to explore gene function and genome editing in animals and in plants”, according to Teagasc.

Agricultural science has been the first field to benefit from the technology and tonight’s episode features the plant researchers who are investigating the use of ‘biological scissors’.

Using genetics for disease resistance

Barley is the fourth largest cereal crop after maize, rice and wheat – with 132 million tonnes produced annually.

Barley has historically contained disease-resistant genes that are hugely important in terms of successful harvests; but 2017 has been a particularly bad year for the crop, so could gene editing benefit Irish farmers?

Recently, it has been discovered that these resistance genes (r-genes) have become susceptible genes (s-genes) and the plants are far more likely to become diseased.

However, scientists have discovered that by simply turning off these genes, they can turn those s-genes back into r-genes, effectively resetting their natural resistance and protecting the plants from disease. Teagasc plant geneticist Dr. Ewen Mullins will also appear on the episode tonight to explain this in more detail.

Dr. Ewen Mullins, Teagasc, with presenter Kathriona Devereaux

Commenting on the matter, Dr. Mullins said: “The tillage industry underpins our dairy and beef sectors, but tillage farmers are facing significant challenges that we have to address.

“The increased threat of crop diseases – coupled with a decrease in the available options to control those diseases – challenges the continued sustainability of our primary tillage crops.

“Developing resistant crops is key, and breeders have relied for over 70 years on breeding processes such as mutagenesis to achieve this. The problem with mutagenesis, however, is that it is cumbersome and wildly inaccurate.

In contrast, gene editing is an upgraded form of mutagenesis that is effective and highly accurate; in effect it is mutagenesis ‘2.0’.

Mullins elaborated, noting: “By putting a simple ‘edit’ (or ‘cut’) in the code of a single plant gene, it is possible to change how plants respond to stress. Already, existing varieties are being enhanced around the world via editing to counter specific diseases (such as mildew-resistant wheat).

“With editing we have the opportunity to generate resistance to those diseases that threaten our crops the most.”