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An unintended consequence – Maris Huntsman: A great choice for entomological careers but not so good for farmers

I could have used Sod’s Law or Murphy’s Law as the lead in for this article, but as you will see (if you keep on reading), this story isn’t all doom and gloom 😊. During the 1960s, cereal growers in the UK and on mainland Europe, were subjected to onslaughts on two fronts, yellow rust* ((Puccinia striiformis) (Doling & Doodson, 1968) and cereal aphids (Fletcher & Bardner, 1969; Kolbe, 1969).  Although cereal aphids had been a sporadic problem in Europe for several decades previously (Kolbe, 1969,1973; Rautapää, 1976) and even earlier than that (e.g. Marsham, 1798), 1968 was an exceptional year for them (Fletcher & Bardner, 1969; Kolbe, 1969).  Presaging  Richard Root’s seminal work on crop apparency and pest occurrence, the Dutch agronomist Willem Feekes predicted that changes in agricultural practice, in particular cereal production, would lead to increased pest and disease problems (Feekes, 1967). This was further emphasised by Wilhelm Kolbe of Bayer, who suggested that the big increase in cereal production in Europe between 1950 and 1970 and the switch from oats to wheat was the cause of the cereal aphid problem (Kolbe, 1973).   Similarly, in the UK, where oats were 51% of the cereal crop in 1930, they had fallen to 11% by 1965 (Marks & Britton, 1989).

Cereal production UK

The shift in cereal crops may indeed have been a contributory factor, but I think, certainly in the UK, that we can add another factor to the equation. Over at Maris Lane**, where the Plant Breeding Institute was based at Trumpington, Cambridge, a new variety of wheat, Maris Huntsman, with good resistance to both powdery mildew and yellow rust (Ruckenbauer, 1975) had been developed and introduced as a recommended variety to farmers in 1972 (Hughes & Bodden, 1978).  By 1977 it accounted for almost 40% of the wheat sold in the UK (Hughes & Bodden, 1978), although a mere two years later, it had fallen to just over 20% (Johnson, 1992).  Based at Trumpington, entomologist Henry Lowe, had, since the late1960s been investigating the resistance of crop plants to aphids, first beans (e.g. Lowe, 1968) was at the time, investigating the resistance of varieties of wheat to aphids (Lowe, 1978, 1980). He found, as one might expect that not all cereal species and varieties were equally susceptible to aphids, and if given a free choice, the grain aphid Sitobion avenae, showed a preference for Maris Huntsman.

So what does this have to do with launching the careers of a couple of dozen entomologists? Well, back in the late 1960s Tony Dixon, then based in Glasgow, got interested in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi  (Dixon, 1971; Dixon & Glen, 1971), a minor pest of cereals in the UK, mainly because of its great ability to transmit Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (Watson & Mulligan, 1960. In those countries, such as Finland and Sweden, where spring sown cereals are the norm, it is a pest in its own right, able to cause yield reduction without the help of a virus (Leather et al., 1989). Tony moved to the University of East Anglia as Professor of Ecology in 1975 and started his new career there by appointing six new PhD students. Three of these were looking at aspects of cereal aphid ecology, Allan Watt researching the biology of S. avenae and Metoplophium dirhodum, Ian McLean looking at the predators and Nick Carter modelling their populations in order to develop a forecasting system.  Research groups at Imperial College and at the University of Southampton also began to work on the problem.  Fortuitously although cereal aphid numbers had fallen since the  

Numbers of Sitobion avenae caught in the Brooms Barn suction trap (data from Watson & Carter, 1983)

populations picked up in 1974 and then rose to outbreak levels again in 1976, just as the new PhD students started their field work. I joined the group in 1977 to work on R. padi, followed in subsequent years by Keith Walters (now a colleague at Harper Adams University), John Chroston, Sarah Gardner, Nigel Thornback, Ali Fraser, Shirley Watson, Trevor Acreman, Dave Dent, and after I left for pastures new, Alvin Helden (now Head of School at Anglia Ruskin University). Similar numbers of students were appointed at Southampton, including Nick Sotherton, now Director of Research at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.  There were also groups started at Imperial College and the University of Reading. There was a certain element of rivalry between the groups, Steve Wratten for example, was an ex-student of Tony’s and there was a certain degree of animosity between Roy Taylor (of Taylor’s Power Law fame) at Rothamsted and Tony Dixon, we had mini-conferences to exchange findings and generally got on well.  Allan Watt for example went to work for Steve Wratten as a post-doc before moving up to Scotland to work on the pine beauty moth alongside me.  It was a great time to be working on aphids and I think we all benefitted from the experience and I for one, am very grateful to the plant breeders for developing a  variety of wheat, that although resistant to rust and powdery mildew, is very attractive to the grain aphid 🙂

Having fun in a Norfolk cereal field; me, Allan Watt and Ian McLean (Nick Carter had the good sense to stand behind the camera).

You may be wondering why I penned this reminiscence. Well, last year, my colleague Tom Pope and I were discussing cereal aphids at coffee time (as you do), and I mentioned how Maris Huntsman had launched my career.  It just so happened that Tom had access to old, ancient and modern varieties of cereals to hand and a final year project student keen on aphids so it doesn’t take a genius to guess what happened next 🙂

Host preferences of Sitobion avenae (Dan Hawes & Tom Pope). Can you guess which is Maris Huntsman?

So, Maris Huntsman, a great choice for attracting aphids and producing entomologists 🙂 and of course a great big vote of thanks to the PBI



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*Yellow rust is still a  still a major problem for cereal growers worldwide

**an address that is immortalised in the names of several cultivars of crops developed by the PBI


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