November 15, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Researching the future of wheat: An interview with Manpartik Gill

Manpartik Gill is the recipient of a UoN-RRes PhD studentship. Their project is titled: Novel brassinosteriod dwarfing genes as alternatives for improved wheat grain yields. Their supervisors are Dr Stephen Thomas (RRes), Assoc Prof John Foulkes (UoN), and Emeritus Prof Peter Hedden (RRes).

Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?

My goal before starting a PhD was to become an academic and to undertake a project of personal growth. Successfully being awarded a PhD position in a well renowned university provides a great opportunity to do both these things. My love for plants grew when, as a child, I would accompany my dad to his tissue culture laboratory where I used to see micro propagated plants, callus cultures growing in some jelly-like substances and cell suspensions under the microscope. These visits nourished my interest and curiosity in this field and while studying biology in school I could relate very strongly to it.

After leaving school, I undertook a B.Sc. Agriculture (Hons.) 4-year program at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Punjab, India, which is one of premier agricultural universities in India due to its pivotal role in successfully initiating the Green Revolution in India. The degree had a wide variety of courses but Genetics, Plant breeding and Biotechnology were the one’s I connected with, as I felt they had huge potential in addressing the global food and feed requirements in the current era.

My interest in research was further developed when I was admitted to an M.Sc. in degree in Plant Breeding and Genetics at PAU, working on a project involving wheat grain quality improvement. This was the first time when I worked with wheat crop and was introduced to its importance for global food security. The aim of my project was to introduce low polyphenol oxidase and rust resistance genes in one of the premier wheat varieties of Punjab which is grown on a large acreage due to its superior chapatti making quality.

After successfully defending my Master’s thesis, I started working as a Junior Research Fellow in the Department of Biochemistry in PAU. There I was introduced to acrylamide (a potential carcinogen) problem in wheat baked products. The specific aim of the project was to reduce the content of acrylamide in these products by exploiting both natural genetic variation and silencing the key genes by genome editing.

By undertaking these projects, I was able to learn about various techniques which are common in the world of molecular biology, breeding and biochemistry.

Why did you choose this particular scheme (Rothamsted-UoN)?

As I was committed to having an internationally renowned PhD degree, I started searching for PhD positions in the UK, US and Canada. I was excited to learn about the “Nottingham- Rothamsted Future Food Beacon Studentships” from one of my teachers, and I applied for my current project and was selected. One of the greatest things about this studentship is that it gives opportunities for international students to be a part of these esteemed organisations which have always been at the forefront of agricultural science. Students are given a golden chance to shape their careers, working with scientists who are not only experts in their field of study but also great supervisors.

How has your first year gone? Any highlights or successes?

I feel my first year was a great success. I think I have evolved each day in some way or another, either by learning new experimental tools or by improving my interpersonal skills and building new friends and collaborations.

Has undertaking a PhD been different from other degrees you have done? How so?

Yes, there is a huge difference between my PhD and initial degrees both personally and professionally. On personal grounds, during my previous studies I was living at home and thus I didn’t need to worry about anything such as cooking, cleaning etc., but now it’s totally the opposite so I feel I have gained lots of managerial skills and have become way more independent which I may not have been back home. The other major difference lies in dealing with a diverse group of people who have different cultural upbringings. This had a huge impact on widening my perspective and creative skills. On the professional front, as a PhD is a long game there is a requirement to validate a concept and test the hypothesis on various dimensions. Now I am working with many collaborators trying to stitch various pieces together and validate a concept, which I feel is amazing.

Tell us about your research. What do you study? Why is it important?

Wheat is one of the most important cereal crops consumed; providing nearly 20% of the protein, dietary fibre and minerals globally. With the future population growth projections, wheat yields are required to increase by nearly 60% by 2050. However, this needs to be balanced against complications associated with climate change and land degradation.

The green revolution is an excellent example wherein the gibberellin phytohormone pathway were altered in wheat to make semi-dwarf varieties that produced dramatically high yields under higher fertiliser application. This transformed countries reliant on agriculture to become self-sufficient in wheat grain production and enabled food security.

Currently, I am working chiefly with developmental biologists. During my PhD we want to optimise the wheat architecture (primarily focusing on canopy architecture) by tailoring brassinosteroid (BR) phytohormone pathway. We wish to introduce novel alleles in various genes in the BR biosynthetic and signalling pathway in wheat by using both forward and reverse genetics-based approaches. The performance of modified wheat plants will be ultimately established in field trials.

How do you explain your research to ordinary people?

Photosynthesis is a process wherein plants absorb the sunlight with the aid of chlorophyll and convert the solar energy into the chemical energy in the form of complex organic compounds. What happens in the case of crops with droopy leaves is, sunlight is only absorbed by the upper canopy thus causing shadiness in the lower canopy. This causes reduced photosynthetic efficiency. We want to change the canopy architecture by making the leaves more upright and erect (at least on the upper canopy) so that there is more even distribution of light. Thus improving the photosynthetic efficiency of wheat and thus increasing grain yields.

How do you cope with the pressure of doing a PhD?

I like to travel to various places on weekends, going to some parks and I love cycling to release my stress. Apart from that as I am a nature loving person, I sometimes go to the nearest park with my laptop and do some reading during the bright sunny weekdays to energise myself and break the monotony of the workplace.

Photographs courtesy of Graham Shephard

Posted in Meet the Beacon