Scientists win £1.8m to help farmers fight flea beetles

Dr Rachel Wells, senior scientist at the John Innes Centre, with oilseed rape plants

Dr Rachel Wells, senior scientist at the John Innes Centre, is leading a project to develop oilseed rape varieties which are resistant to cabbage stem flea beetle pests - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Norwich-based researchers have won £1.8m in funding for a project to help farmers combat a devastating pest of oilseed rape crops.

The John Innes Centre (JIC), on Norwich Research Park, has secured the Industrial Partnership Award (IPA) along with fellow scientists at Rothamsted Research and industrial partners.

The money, from the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), will help the project team find urgently-needed solutions to tackle cabbage stem flea beetles.

A cabbage stem flea beetle on an oilseed rape plant

A cabbage stem flea beetle on an oilseed rape plant - Credit: Lucy Thursfield

The pest is becoming increasingly problematic for East Anglia's farmers since the ban on neonicotinoid-based pesticides, which were previously used as seed treatments to control the beetle.

An escalation in crop losses has sparked questions over the future of oilseed rape in the UK, with cropped area declining by 35pc between 2012 and 2019, said the researchers.

The partnership, led by the John Innes Centre, is exploring an "integrated pest management" approach in place of ecologically-damaging pesticides.

Key to this is helping seed breeders to develop resistant varieties of oilseed rape that are less palatable to the beetle, by identifying genetic "markers" in the crop genome.

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Dr Rachel Wells, a senior JIC scientist and principal investigator of the successful bidding team said: "This is fantastic news, and it means we can accelerate vital work in combating this significant pest. 

“The success of the bid has been made possible with the support of a strong network of industrial partners which we have built over time.

"Through this partnership approach we are addressing an important problem for industry, turning scientific discovery into solutions in the field."

Further research into the lifecycle and feeding preferences of the beetle is being carried out by the entomology team and two post-graduate researchers at the John Innes Centre, where the first in-house breeding population of the pest was established.

IPAs are grants which encourage collaboration between academic research groups and industry.

They require significant industrial involvement and commercial partners are required to contribute at least 10pc of the full project costs.

Industrial partners participating in this research include seven crop breeding companies and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB).