Curious about cabbages: Visiting Lincolnshire Seed Companies

This is the final report from our placement programme. Here three members of the Xanthomonas Threats project, Adam Bryning, Jenny Cole and Joana Vicente (all Fera), report on their visit to two Lincolnshire seed companies – Elsoms and Sakata.

Adam, Jenny and Joana at Sakata

Discussing diagnostics at Elsoms Seeds

Elsoms is a family-run UK seed specialist and breeder, with nearly 180 years of history and over 120 staff. Elsoms specialises in Brassicas, Lettuce, Alliums, Parsnip, Carrots, Beetroot, Herbs, Legumes, Asparagus, Radicchio, Squashes, soft fruits (strawberry grown from seeds) and sweetcorn. In total they deal with over 345 varieties of 70 crops, breeding for both the UK and for the rest of the world.

Seed grading at Elsoms

For the Xanthomonas Threats project we were mainly interested in Elsoms work with vegetable brassicas including swede, purple sprouting broccoli and oilseed rape. We were hosted by Dr Jennifer Hodgetts, Phytopathology Manager. Jennifer previously worked at Fera on a range of projects in bacteriology and so was the perfect person to help us understand how our research could have a real impact with seed companies like Elsoms and other stakeholders.

We visited the tissue culture laboratories where they speed up the breeding process by creating double haploids. This bypasses several generations of inbreeding to create new hybrids. We also saw the molecular labs, the pathology growth rooms, and the seed testing laboratories. Justin Roberts gave us a tour of the glasshouses where breeding is done, and we learnt about the process undertaken to develop new varieties.

Elsoms also specialises in seed priming and applying seed treatments to both their own seeds and those from other companies. Duncan Ballans showed us the impressive machinery used for seed washing and drying, seed pelleting, seed priming, seed treatment, seed sorting and packaging. We learnt how difficult it can be to get seeds coated to an exact size, and how this improves the beginning of life of the crops, giving growers the best opportunity to raise a successful crop. 

We talked with Keely Watson about importing and exporting seeds and the current requirements and difficulties faced by seed companies and growers, especially in the wake of Brexit. Many countries have different requirements, and this means that plants and seeds need different inspections and tests in order to obtain the appropriate certificates to be imported or exported. 

Following a presentation on the Xanthomonas Threats project, we discussed how we could ensure that our research not only improves our knowledge of Xanthomonas pathogens, but perhaps also lead to new diagnostic assays for a range of stakeholders.

Breeding for resistance at Sakata Seeds

For the second day of our trip to Lincolnshire, we visited Sakata Seeds UK. They are a Sutterton-based subsidiary of the Japanese flower and vegetable breeding Sakata Seed Corporation based in Yokohama, Japan. Sakata breed several brassica crops, including cauliflower, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, and Pak Choi. They are world leaders in broccoli, and are the breeders of Tenderstem® Broccoli.

In the Sakata glasshouses

We were hosted by John McKinless, Vegetable Plant Breeder. We also met other brassica breeders, Takeyuki Furihata and Rory Blackbourn. We heard about Sakata’s 110 year history and how it is organised globally. On this site in Lincolnshire they focus on breeding brassicas and spinach.

Breeding for resistance to brassica disease Xanthomonas campestris pv. campestris (Xcc, black rot) is an important goal for Sakata so the Xanthomonas Threats project might offer a bit of hope. We discussed the possibility of selected lines being screened by the Sakata pathologists. Another valuable project output would be suitable diagnostics for detecting Xcc in seeds and our conversations will carry on with the UK and Japanese Sakata specialists. We also discussed difficulties in exporting and importing materials, which can be especially complicated when infected material is to be exchanged, with frequent delays in paperwork or samples being retained at airports.

Brassicas growing at Sakata

We visited the glasshouses and saw the pollination process used to obtain crosses or inbred lines. We also walked to the fields to see ongoing trial work. Adam was pleased to collect a sample of cauliflower with stem hollowing and associated black ooze to take back to the Fera lab where he identified the bacteria involved. Both a pectolytic Pseudomonas species and a Pectobacterium species were isolated from the sample, both of which were likely contributing to the rotting observed.

Plant pathology in the pub

The team also happened upon a pub quiz during their trip to Lincolnshire. Fittingly Jenny and Joana dubbed their team ‘BactPlantDis’ and came a very respectable second place (out of 12 teams) raising the profile of the Bacterial Plant Disease Programme in the region!