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Super broccoli takes Brassica family to Chelsea Flower Show

March 31, 2008  By Fruit & Vegetable

Warwick HRI, the University of
Warwick’s plant research department, recently created a display at the
Chelsea Flower Show in London.

broccoliWarwick HRI, the University of Warwick’s plant research department, recently created a display at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. However, the star exhibit in their garden wasn’t multi-coloured flowers or a soothing water feature. Instead, the display demonstrated how far scientists have reached in breeding a range of “super broccoli,” which will help people live longer, last longer on refrigerator shelves, and require less pesticides and fertilizers. The display featured a range of plants from the Brassica family, including broccoli and oilseed rape.

Breeding better crops usually entails crossing plants that possess the best properties, usually from within the same crop (for instance restricting oneself to just cross breeding broccoli with another type of broccoli). However, this approach misses out the vast range of useful properties in the larger Brassica family.

Researchers at the university have identified cross breeding possibilities that will give broccoli much greater resistance to two of its greatest threats – aphids and the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. This will vastly reduce the amount of pesticides that have to be used on broccoli. This breeding program will probably be complete within a decade.

Broccoli is one of the most difficult vegetables to keep fresh. Supermarkets find this particularly annoying as most of their vegetables are brought in on a four-day cycle whilst broccoli requires its own three-day cycle. Adding just one more day to its shelf life would make customers happier and supermarkets overjoyed. Researchers have already taken the first steps to cross breed broccoli with a longer shelf life and expect the first commercially available varieties to be hitting shelves within a decade.

Broccoli is a rich source of antioxidants that have a number of health properties including defending against cancers. However, broccoli’s short shelf life means those important antioxidants quickly break down and can lose much of their power before being consumed. The cross breeding program creating longer shelf life will also ensure the antioxidants remain potent longer.

As well as a program of cross breeding, the University of Warwick display also showed a selection of companion plants that can be grown alongside broccoli. These plants will not impact on the growth of the broccoli but they act as a major diversion for pests that would otherwise attack the broccoli.

As well, another member of the Brassica family – oilseed rape – is playing a key role in providing biodegradable oils that can be used to manufacture a range of environmentally favourable products. Unfortunately, the range of special designer oils available from this plant source is limited. The Warwick HRI team has started experimenting with expanding the range of designer oils available by cross breeding the oil seed rape with other Brassicas. Being able to produce designer oils from carbon neutral vegetation is crucial to sustainable manufacturing.

Warwick HRI researchers are well equipped to work on these projects as they have one of the largest gene banks of vegetable Brassicas in the world. With more than 6,000 plants in the gene bank, the Warwick HRI research teams have an invaluable resource enabling them to carry out their research. This breeding work on broccoli alone is on course to transform it into a super plant.

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