Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 063 August 2006 - North
Delving crop data for good parents Making sense of the large amounts of data produced by grains researchers is one of the backroom jobs that is vital for research results to start along the path to on-farm application. Grains Research Scholar Helena Oakey is taking up the challenge BY REBECCA THYER n Technological advances are allowing researchers to uncover vast amounts of new knowledge about plants, but making sense of it all so that it can be meaningfully applied is where the work of biometricians like Helena Oakey comes into its own. These days researchers are generating enormous volumes of data, especially molecular data, and the challenge is how best to sort it out, she says. As a GRDC-sponsored PhD student at the University of Adelaide’s Waite campus, Helena is drawing on a statistics background to improve the functionality of genetic data that has been gathered from different breeding lines. In other words, she is looking beyond a new variety’s agronomic traits to better understand its lineage and to determine if, as well as the enhanced traits it carries, it has the genetic make-up that also makes it a good parent for further improvement of the line. Identifying ‘good parents’ at the same time as evaluating those lines for other traits would be a significant tool for breeders. As an important first step in her research Helena has looked at using information about the lineage or pedigree of lines to obtain breeding values. “Animal breeders have been obtaining breeding values of their animals for years,” she says. “However, crop breeders are interested in more than this. They are interested, for example, in determining lines that are suitable for commercial release because they are high-yielding or disease-resistant.” For crops these values have been identified and accrued through field trials, and Ms Oakey’s work is to extend field trial analysis to incorporate pedigree information. “In addition to obtaining the best commercial lines, the breeder will also know whether a line will make a good parent by the breeding values we have worked out,” she says. “All of this information can be obtained from a standard agronomic breeding trial, without the need to resort to specialised designs.” The approach has been developed for single-site analyses but, as a crop’s performance can vary across sites, the approach needs to be extended to multi-site analyses. “In addition to multi-site analyses, I am also extending the approach to allow for hybrid crops such as sorghum and maize so that we can estimate the value of combining certain lines in a particular cross,” she says. “So far the results look promising and I hope to publish the findings soon.” Through her research to better understand breeding lines, Ms Oakey is able to combine her passions for statistics and genetics. “I have always been fascinated by genetics and the opportunity arose to combine that interest with statistics.” Ms Oakey worked as a technician in a medical genetics laboratory before deciding to undertake a statistics degree at Southampton University in the UK. She then completed a Masters in Medical Statistics. When she moved to Australia she worked in statistical consultancy – mainly agriculturally based. The change from humans to plants was a good move. “You can experiment on plants and use methods that are more versatile. You can’t do that on humans.” Ms Oakey wants to continue working in research analysis when her PhD is completed. “I would like to continue doing research and look at new methods of analysis. Statistics is an integral part of any well-conducted research. “It plays a role at every stage from good trial design, so that you can get out of it what you want and ensure that the data are usable, right through to using the most modern and appropriate statistical analysis. “It’s also important for statisticians and researchers to make connections with growers, so that we understand what they’re doing and what they need and for them to understand what we’re doing and why.” GRDC Research Code GRS67 More information: Helena Oakey, 08 8303 6790, firstname.lastname@example.org AUGUST 2006 GROUND COVER 29 Scientists in grain 'IT'S ALSO IMPORTANT FOR STATISTICIANS AND RESEARCHERS TO MAKE CONNECTIONS WITH GROWERS, SO THAT WE UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY'RE DOING AND WHAT THEY NEED AND FOR THEM TO UNDERSTAND WHAT WE'RE DOING AND WHY.' Helena Oakey FENDT SAVES YOU. "One of the toughest jobs I tackle is scraping. In fact, it's so tough that there's only one tractor I trust with the job. 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