Genetic resources – the impact of the University of Birmingham

The University of Birmingham, a major English university, received its royal charter in 1900, although a predecessor medical college was founded in Birmingham in 1825.

Although strong in the various biological sciences – with leading botany, zoology, microbiology, and genetics departments (now combined into a School of Biosciences), Birmingham never had an agriculture faculty. Yet its impact on agriculture worldwide has been significant.

For decades it had one of the strongest genetics departments in the world, with luminaries such as Professor Sir Kenneth Mather FRS* and Professor John Jinks FRS**, leading the way in cytology, and population and quantitative genetics.

In fact, genetics at Birmingham was renowned for its focus on quantitative genetics and applications to plant breeding. For many years it ran a one-year MSc course in Applied Genetics.

The head of the department of botany and Mason Professor of Botany during the 1960s was Jack Heslop-Harrison FRS*** whose research and reviews on genecology would make such valuable contributions to the field of plant genetics resources.

Professor Jack Hawkes OBE succeeded Heslop-Harrison as Mason Professor of Botany in 1967, although he’d been in the department since 1952. Jack was a leading taxonomist of the tuber-bearings Solanums – potatoes! Since 1938 he had made several collecting expeditions to the Americas (often with his Danish colleague JP Hjerting) to collect and study wild potatoes. And it was through his work on potatoes that Jack became involved with the newly-founded plant genetic resources movement under the leadership of Sir Otto Frankel. Jack joined a Panel of Experts at FAO, and through the work of that committee plans were laid at the end of the 1960s to collect and conserve the diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives worldwide, and establish an international network of genebanks.

The culmination of that initiative – four decades later – was the opening in 2008 of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault by the Global Crop Diversity Trust).

Jack wondered how a university might contribute effectively to the various genetic resources initiatives, and decided that a one-year training course leading to a masters degree (MSc) would be the best approach. With support from the university, the course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources took its first intake of four students (from Australia, Brazil, Candada, and the UK) in September 1969. I joined the course in September 1970, alongside Ayla Sencer from Izmir, Turkey, Altaf Rao from Pakistan, Folu Dania Ogbe from Nigeria, and Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela. Jack invited many of the people he worked with worldwide in genetic resources to come to Birmingham to give guest lectures. And we were treated to several sessions with the likes of Dr Erna Bennett from FAO and Professor Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

From the outset, Frankel thought within 20 years everyone who needed training would have passed through the course. He was mistaken by about 20 years. The course remained the only formal training course of its kind in the world, and by 2008 had trained over 1400 MSc and 3-month short course students from more than 100 countries, many becoming genetic conservation leaders in their own countries. Although the course, as such, is no longer offered, the School of Biosciences still offers PhD opportunities related to the conservation, evaluation and use of genetic resources.

The first external examiner (for the first three years) was Professor Hugh Bunting, Professor of Agricultural Botany at the University of Reading. Other examiners over the years have included Professor Eric Roberts (Reading) and Professor John Cooper FRS (Aberystwyth) and directors of Kew, Professor Sir Arthur Bell and Professor Sir Peter Crane FRS. Students were also able to carry out their dissertation research over the years at other institutions, such as Kew-Wakehurst Place (home of the Millennium Seed Bank) and the Genetic Resources Unit, Warwick Crop Centre (formerly the National Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne) where the manager for many years was Dr Dave Astley, a Birmingham graduate from the 1971 intake.

And what has been the impact of training so many people? Most students returned to their countries and began work in research – collecting and conserving. In 1996, FAO presented a report, The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources, to the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources held in Leipzig, Germany, in June 1996, and published in 1998. Many Birmingham graduates attended that conference as members of national delegations, and some even headed their delegations. In the photo below, everyone is a Birmingham graduate, with the exception of Dr Geoff Hawtin, Director General (fourth from the right, at the back) and Dr Lyndsey Withers, Tissue Culture Specialist (seventh from the right, front row) from IPGRI (now Bioversity International) that provided scholarships to students from developing countries, and guest lectures. Two other delegates, Raul Castillo (Ecuador) and Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), are not in the photo, since they were occupied in delicate negotiations at the time.

In 1969, two new members of staff were recruited to support the new MSc course. Dr J Trevor Williams (shown on the right in this photo taken at the 20th anniversary meeting at Birmingham in November 1989) acted as the course tutor, and lectured about plant variation.

Dr Richard Lester (who died in 2006) was a chemotaxonomist and Solanaceae expert. Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 70s to become Executive Secretary, then Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (which in turn became IPGRI, then Bioversity International).

Brian Ford-Lloyd (now Professor of Conservation Genetics and Director of the university Graduate School) joined the department in 1979 and was the course tutor for many years, and contributing lectures in data management, among others.

With the pending retirement of Jack Hawkes in September 1982, I was appointed in April 1981 as a lecturer to teach evolution of crop plants, agroecology, and germplasm collecting among others, and to supervise dissertation research. I eventually supervised more than 25 MSc students in 10 years, some of whom continued for a PhD under my supervision (Susan Juned, Denise Clugston, Ghani Yunus, Javier Francisco-Ortega) as well as former students from Peru (René Chavez and Carlos Arbizú) who completed their PhD on potatoes working at CIP while registered at Birmingham. I was also the short course tutor for most of that decade.

IBPGR provided funding not only for students, but supported the appointment of a seed physiologist, Dr Pauline Mumford until 1990. This was my first group of students who commenced their studies in September 1981. Standing are (l to r): Reiner Freund (Germany), Pauline Mumford, and two students from Bangladesh. Seated (l to r) are: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), student from Brazil, Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Margarida Texeira (Portugal), student from Indonesia. Missing from that photo is Yen-Yuk Lo from Malaysia.

MSc students from Malaysia, Germany, Uruguay, Turkey, Portugal, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Dr Pauline Mumford, seed physiologist, stands in the second row.

The course celebrated its 20th anniversary in November 1989, and a group of ex-students were invited to Birmingham for a special workshop, sponsored by IBPGR. In the photo below are (l to r): Elizabeth Acheampong (Ghana), Indonesia, Trevor Williams, Yugoslavia, Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), India, Carlos Arbizu (Peru), Philippines, ??, Andrea Clausen (Argentina), Songkran Chitrakon (Thailand), ??.

We also planted a medlar tree (Mespilus germanica); this photo was taken at the tree planting, and shows staff, past and current students.

After I resigned from the university to join IRRI in 1991, Dr Nigel Maxted was appointed as a lecturer, and has continued his work on wild relatives of crop plants and in situ conservation. He has also taken students on field courses to the Mediterranean several times.

I was privileged to attend Birmingham as a graduate student (I went on to complete a PhD under Jack Hawkes’ supervision) and become a member of the faculty. The University of Birmingham has made a very significant contribution to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources around the world.

Graduation December 1975
L to r: ?, Bryn ?, me, Trevor Williams, Jacks Hawkes, Jean Hanson, ?, Jane Toll, Steve Smith

Today, hundreds of Birmingham graduates are involved daily in genetic conservation or helping to establish policy concerning access to and use of genetic resources around the world. Their work has ensured the survival of agrobiodiversity and its use to increase the productivity of crops upon which the world’s population depends.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* Mather was Vice Chancellor (= CEO) of the University of Southampton when I was an undergraduate there from 1967-1970. After retirement from Southampton, Mather returned to Birmingham and had an office in the Department of Genetics. In the late 1980s when I was teaching at Birmingham, and a member of the Genetics Group, I moved my office close-by Mather’s office, and we would frequently meet to discuss issues relating to genetic resources conservation and use. He often told me that a lot of what I mentioned was new to him – especially the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet, which had been the basis of a Genetics Group seminar by one of my PhD students, Ghani Yunus from Malaysia, who was working on Lathyrus sativus, the grasspea. Mather and I agreed to meet a few days later, but unfortunately we never met since he died of a heart attack in the interim.

** John Jinks was head of department when Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse applied to the university in 1967. Without a foreign language qualification it looked like he would not be offered a place. Until Jinks intervened. Paul Nurse often states that had it not been for John Jinks, he would not have made it to university. Jinks was the head of the Agricultural Research Council when he died in 1987. He was chair of the interview panel when I was appointed to a lectureship in plant biology at Birmingham in April 1981.

*** Heslop-Harrison became Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1970-1976.

2 thoughts on “Genetic resources – the impact of the University of Birmingham

  1. sadly remenber John J…a great teacher…looked for him, only to find he had died…a lovely attitude: he told me that the box of cigarettes on his desk were to remind him that smoking was a route to cancer and he had given up…

  2. John D Thomas says:

    Excellent overview Mike. I was a PhD student 1989-92 and also attended part of the MSc course. The department always had an international feel about it with so many postgrads from all over the world attending. The GenSoc John Jinks memorial Seminar also took place at this time – seeing so many leading lights attend to pay tribute was certainly memorable. With the retirement of Prof. Derek Smith (so that there was no longer a titular Professor of Genetics), the Death of Mather and your departure falling in quick succession, it felt like a changing of the guard was being announced, but where were the replacements?

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