Wheat Breeding For A Changed Climate – with Dr Rebecca Thistlethwaite

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In this episode, Bronwyn Brennan, from the Moss Environmental team, talks to Dr Rebecca Thistlethwaite who works at the University of Sydney Plant Breeding Institute and literally puts bread on the table for all Australians. She spends her time with the Plant Breeding Institute looking into developing innovative new breeds of wheat that are more resilient to our changing climate.

Rebecca and Bronwyn discuss the challenges in completing a PhD straight after your prior studies, and how a stint of work experience might help you stick it out for good in the end.

Rebecca shares her personal experience on how she adapted moving from the bright city lights of Sydney, to the regional towns of Narribri and Armidale – and how country life meant a range of different social circumstances, including the delights of discovering small town hospitality over big city night life.

Finally, she then shares insights into their breeding programs, from how seeds are sourced overseas (from a diverse array of countries, including Mexico, India and Sudan) to how these seeds are then combined with Australian wheat species to produce the best of the best lines for changing Australian climates.

Socials and Links

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rebecca-thistlethwaite-19426354

Intro 00:04
Hi, and welcome. Buckle up for a new episode of Beyond The Green Line, the only podcast hooking you up for a virtual coffee date with some of the leading changemakers, industry experts and everyday activists in environmental and agricultural sciences. So pop in your headphones, go for a walk and get ready for inspiration, ideas, insights and real life stories beyond the green line we balance along.

Bronwyn Brennan 00:37
Hi again team welcome back to the next episode of Beyond The Green Line, brought to you by the team at Moss Environmental. I’m Bronwyn Brennan and joining us today we have Dr. Rebecca Thistlethwaite. Bec and I met during our undergrad University of Sydney and I’m hoping today that Rebecca will talk us through how a Sydney girl from the beaches ended up working as a plant breeder extraordinary. The excitement’s and challenges facing Australian agriculture and some of her favorite parts of the job. Bec is based in Northwest New South Wales in Narrabri, which is about two hours west of Tamworth where the Moss team are based, and Bec works at the University of Sydney Plant Breeding Institute. Hello, Bec!

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 01:17
Hello! Thanks for having me.

Bronwyn Brennan 01:19
Oh, anytime, literally anytime. Right from memory, you went straight from our Honors year to your PhD? How did you find the country move? And how did you find studying straight for so many years?

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 01:34
Yeah, it was quite a big shock. Actually, I didn’t actually go straight from uni to my PhD, I ended up doing some work. And I’ve been Armidale for a commercial company. So I always knew I wanted to be in research. And I ended up just doing a little bit of managing trials for a commercial company. And it was just a really good way for me to get out and about and see sort of a little bit more of what agriculture had to offer and what the industry could offer me. And then I was lucky enough to have a couple of great opportunities through mentors, that I’d met through university, and they were able to give me the opportunity to start the PhD. So yeah, it was a, it was a tricky decision to make. Because you really have to love what you do when you start a PhD because it’s a long haul. And it’s not for everyone. And I totally get why people don’t always succeed. And I was one of those ones that was definitely not going to, I’d actually started doing the PhD and was going back and forth to Sydney. And if I hadn’t have moved to Narrabri, I definitely would have quit my PhD. So yeah, moving to where I was having to do all the research and immersing myself in everything was definitely the way to go. And then yeah, I just made sure that I tried to get it done as quickly as I could. That was the whole aim for me. I just, I needed to move on. And I was I had the pressure behind me to be able to just get it done and get it out the way and then move into the higher role once I finished my PhD. So yeah, I was really lucky in the sense that I was able to get that opportunity not not long after uni finished.

Bronwyn Brennan 03:01
That’s awesome. How did you find that country move? I’m a big advocate for people leaving the cities. And I think that the regions that we have in Australia and particularly in New South Wales are fantastic. How did you find it?

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 03:14
Yeah, actually, it was really hard to begin with. I missed the city a lot. And I missed the convenience. And when I moved, Armidale and Narribri are arrived very different, different towns completely and the people in them are very different too. So Armidale would have, for instance, has a lot more university students. So I found it a bit hard when I was working to get involved with with them. But then when I moved to Narribri, it’s full of young professionals. So I was able to meet a lot of people. And it was funny, because when you start to get to know people around town, you sort of don’t worry too much about going out for dinner and the actual physicality of going somewhere you go to people’s places and you enjoy it, enjoy it just as much. And I think that was a really big thing for me, because when I lived in the city, I never really go to people’s places, you just go out for dinner and you go out to, you know, wherever it was always such a big thing. But here in Narribri, it’s more about the people and you know, that strong interaction with each other rather than big city lights and things like that. So yeah, I really, really enjoy it now. I didn’t it was a big shock at the start. But yeah, now I’ve settled in, I really enjoy it.

Bronwyn Brennan 04:19
Yeah, we think the regions are fantastic. It’s great. Yeah, moving on a little bit. Most climate models indicate that our agricultural regions are all going to get hotter and drier in the coming years. Can you please tell us a bit more about your work of breeding for heat tolerance in our food crops?

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 04:36
Yeah, of course. So, yeah, heat tolerance is a huge area of research that we need to continue to look into just because for our future generations, we’re going to need to be able to support them both domestically and internationally. And with some of the work that we do, you know, if we’re not studying this now, then we’re not going to secure things for the future and having that sustainable way of being able to produce food is is absolutely crucial. So what we do here at Plant Breeding Institute is specifically looking at wheat, and we’ve started to look more into chickpeas and fava beans and other commercial crops, but trying to genetically develop them so that they’re more superior when it comes to heat tolerance. And what we’ve been doing within the research has been to, it’s been a multinational, multi partner approach. And we’ve had many years of research now, which has just accumulated into a bigger project, which I’m really grateful to the Grains Research and Development Corporation for funding. And that is going to look more at developing methods that are going to speed up the process, to be able to develop these types of plants quicker, and be able to make sure that that what they provide to the grower is sustainable in the long term. So we want something that isn’t going to fall over in the next, you know, five, or six or 10 years or whatever, we want something that’s going to be really sustainable. And then also that to be able to use those genetics and the genetic models, and the different breeding methods to make sure that we’ve got those for the future as well. And we can keep moving forward, and with whatever the climate does throw at us in the future. So it’s a big, it’s a big project. And I’m really excited to get back into it in April.

Bronwyn Brennan 06:10
That is really, really exciting. So talk us through the work that goes into the development of a new wheat variety?

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 06:18
Sure! It takes normally about 10 years to be able to produce a new line of wheat and plant breeders and commercial breeding companies are what do the majority of that work at the moment and the stuff that we do within Sydney Uni is to look at pre breeding. So just that step before, what the breeders would actually take the genetic material and develop a new line into so we bring material from all over the world. And we screen them in really large research trials. So they’re mostly we have a big training population, which we have in Narribri, and then we have these sort of little baby populations across Australia. And we’re able to predict using that training population here in Narrabri, what is going to happen at those other trial sites, and based on the algorithms that we’ve developed, and it sounds a bit complicated, but being able to use those of being able to provide those algorithms to plant breeders is able to speed up the process and it can cut the process down by two to five years, depending on what we’re doing. So that’s a huge, huge impact on the industry financially, as well as to all the growers out there that are struggling year to year with heat at particular times, especially times during flowering and grain filling. And we often don’t think too much about – well, we do but we’ve started to look more at it in the last few years – but rising nighttime temperatures, we will always seem to look at day times. But we’re not always looking at night times. And that’s one of the things that if if those heat tolerant lines can’t get a rest during the night, then we’re not going to be able to have them sustainable in the future. So yeah, we need to be breeding for this whole group of variables. And once we get all of that right, get the combination right, then we have this ideal type of wheat.

Bronwyn Brennan 08:01
That’s awesome. I think it’s really fascinating. I think that’s amazing. So when you say that you bring things in from overseas is that usually seeds that you would bring in or other sort of plant materials you might use to get genotypes from?

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 08:14
Yeah, so its seeds mainly. So a lot of the and it does come through a really convoluted quarantine process from where we get them. So generally each year, depending on on who’s available, we’ll have different breeders from the project. And I’ve been as well, in the past few years, which has been a fantastic experience to be able to select lines from places like Mexico and India and places that are really hot. And so we’ll bring back that, that raw material. And we’ll either use them as a straight line, or we’ll cross them in some of our commercial varieties that we’ve got in Australia. So we’re sort of, you know, bringing together the best of the best, and then making sure that yeah, they’re going to be something that can be taken forward. But yeah, the the lines that we’re seeing that are really good at the moment are from Sudan. And I’d love to go and have a look at some of those ones when they’re growing in their natural habitat. But in particular, these ones are really showing some, some promise. So if we can, we we literally bring in anything that anyone will send us and it’s such a big variety of lines that we have. And yeah, it just goes to show in the you know, in the lines that have come through and a lot of the material has gone out to commercial breeding companies. So they’re using them within the crossing programs. And so they’re either going to be commercialized soon or in the next couple of years, which is really exciting to see that happen.

Bronwyn Brennan 09:35
That is super exciting. New varieties are always very, very exciting and see agronomist in me talking I see them growing in habitat, the seeds that come in and they usually from they cultivated in Sudan or they wild grown grasses?

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 09:50
They’re mostly cultivated so they they do have wild types that they will will plant and we have crossed with wild types before but the majority because they’re part have a bigger program looking at evaluating seed across those that that’s what makes this project so good because you are able to bring in so many different, so many different areas of research and areas that are still working in different ways to really benefit the project. So, yeah, that there cultivated lines, and there’ll be a normal sort of trials that you’d see research trials, and then we’ll go and select, they’ll be harvested, and then sent over here for us to then plant. Yeah, we have some fantastic peoples that are that we’re working with to be able to make that happen. So yeah, very grateful to them.

Bronwyn Brennan 10:35
But also, do you normally partner with the University over there? Or how does that exchange normally go?

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 10:40
Yeah, so depending on on where we are a lot of them, they are universities, and some are commercial partners. So yeah, it just, it just depends on where we’re looking. But honestly, when it comes to this type of research, we want everyone to be involved. Because if we don’t, then you do you lose the you lose that type of information. And you can’t, you can’t move things forward unless you have a really big group of people working together to be able to make things happen. So yeah, we’re really grateful to all the different partners that are that are involved in this type of work.

Bronwyn Brennan 11:14
That’s awesome. It’s so interesting. So then you have the seeds over here, they get so them out, we cross them. And then do we work on bulking here? Or does that happen once it goes to the more commercial breeders?

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 11:29
Yeah, so we’ll only work with them in small amounts, if they do need to be bulked we will. But we also that because they’re going through certain generations each year as well. So we’ll do what we can to make sure we’ve got enough seed for the commercial partners depending on on who wants them. But the way that we’ve been doing things recently has been looking at a three tiered approach to to this type of heat tolerance. So we’ll plant them out in these big trials, like I was saying with these little baby sites across Australia, and the big trial here and Narribri. And then those that do really well put into these heat chambers that are able to sort of bring the glass house to the field. And then we’ll heat them up and make sure that they’re really absolutely toasty. And then once those those that do the best out of that will go into the glass house. So normally, when you look at this type of research across the world, people will go from the glass house first to the field, it’s not a great representation of what the germ plasm is doing. Because we sort of we know that glass house trials, the way that roots work within the soil root morphology, they really need to be in a field to be able to see if they behave differently, they really do. So if you might miss a huge amount of really superior germ plasm by planting them out in the glass house first so yeah, being able to have the field to the glass house rather than the glass house to the field has really been a revolutionized the way that we are looking at heat tolerance in this stuff.

Bronwyn Brennan 12:54
I remember looking at some of the heat chambers at PBI Field Day, years ago now how they are they’ve moved around a little air conditioners on the side.

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 13:05
And they’ve definitely improved in their movability lately. Thank goodness because they’re a pain. Yeah, but they’re I mean, they serve a purpose. And they’re starting to be built in other areas around Australia now, which is great. So, you know, we’re always willing to give out all of the information as to how they’re built and what you need to build them. So if anyone ever needs to do that, then they’re more than welcome. Yeah, it’s good.

Bronwyn Brennan 13:31
I love collaborative breeding stories, rather than I suppose private and monetized stories, but that’s probably my background in research coming through. Yeah, we’re gonna work together. Yes, absolutely. And there’s definitely a place in the system for everybody. All parts are are important.

Rebecca Thistlethwaite 13:50
It really is true. Yeah, everyone brings something to the table. And we need to keep that very open.

Bronwyn Brennan 13:56
Very much so. I think it’s all very exciting and very fascinating. Bec, thank you so much for giving us your time today for this chat. It’s been a really, really good talk. Because it gets everyone listening, thinking about the amazing research that goes into their food that their bread on the table doesn’t, doesn’t disappear. Actually, a lot of research goes into how to grow their bread, and talking about the challenges of farmers in our changing climate. So, everybody, please join us for our next episode for more inspirational stories, actionable tips and unleashing the eco0warrior inside you. Until next time, thanks for listening. Please subscribe to our podcast and head over to our socials to explore a little more about us. This has been Bronwyn Brennan for Beyond The Green Line podcast.

Outro 14:45
Thanks for listening to this episode of Beyond The Green Line brought to you by Moss Environmental. Subscribe to our podcast for your weekly invitation to join the conversation. Until next time, keep thinking green.

About The Host

Bronwyn Brennan

Bronwyn Brennan

Bronwyn joined Moss Environmental in 2020 as a Senior Environmental Consultant. Bronwyn has ten years’ experience working across the agricultural, construction and landscape sectors throughout New South Wales. Bronwyn holds a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from the University of Sydney

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