15AGRITECHCAT3. Improved crop breeding programmes through advanced Pollination Control Bag materials technology

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: IBERS


Developing new varieties of Miscanthus (a grass used as an energy crop) requires pollination between parent plants with different characteristics. A good way of controlling this process is to carry it out within an isolated environment known as a crossing bag. These bags need to allow light penetration, control humidity and allow air circulation whilst preventing other pollen from entering the bag. The bags are conventionally made from a paper-based material. The bags have a tendency to rip easily and are prone to slug infestation, which means that the environment is no longer sufficiently isolated to ensure a controlled cross pollination. Alternative materials for crossing bags that do not have these problems therefore need to be developed. Current bags have the advantage of being relatively cheap but are single use; if bags made from alternative materials have superior properties (e.g. slug proof, better light penetration, temperature and humidity control), the greater seed set would make these alternative bag materials economically viable as they would considerably improve the efficiency of a plant breeding programme.

Technical Summary

The project will investigate the technical and commercial feasibility of developing an innovative pollination control bag to improve crop breeding programmes used for three important agricultural crops: sugar beet, wheat and Miscanthus. Existing technologies are unfit for purpose and their use can be detremental to plant health and seed yield, and increase disease incidence and expense. A range of materials (films and nonwoven), fibre technologies and techniques will be investigated and trialled with academic and commercial breeders with the aim of developing the next generation of pollination control bags to improve breeding outcomes, reduce losses caused by poor temperature and humidity control within the bag, and increase seed yield. This will reduce costs for plant breeders and accelerate the rate at which new commercial crop varieties (with improved yields, drought, disease or pest resistance, and higher crop quality), can be discovered and brought to market.

Planned Impact

This project aims to develop pollination control bags (PCB) from novel materials. PCBs need to allow light penetration and air circulation whilst maintaining humidity and temperature control and preventing other pollen from entering the bag.

Conventionally made from paper-based materials, alternative materials for PCBs (e.g. felt based) potentially offer advantages such as being less susceptible to ripping, and being more resistant to slug infestation. Ensuring that the PCB remains intact will ensure that only the parent pollen is present and will increase confidence in the provenance of the resulting hybrid. Improvements in seed set and germination by optimizing other conditions within the bag would dramatically increase the efficiency of plant breeding.

The project will result in a novel PCB material specification and PCB design. Data and evidence from material testing under greenhouse conditions to demonstrate feasibility for sugarbeet, miscanthus and wheat will also be generated. This demonstration of technical feasibility will then require assessment of manufacturing options and scale up prior to commercialization (approximately 12 months from project end).

The manufacturers of PCBs will benefit from the success of this project via an increased market share. Knock-on benefits will accrue to plant breeders. Advanced PCBs will improve seed set and germination rate and therefore decrease the number of crosses needed (perhaps by 50%), and will also allow scale-up of trialing progeny, thereby accelerating developing of new varieties. These cost savings will therefore accelerating the development of plants with useful characteristics (e.g. drought tolerance, suitability for local soil conditions, pest resistance, increased yield).

Farmers will be the direct beneficiaries of these advances in plant breeding. Increased financial returns and more confidence in crop choice will come from the ability to choose from a wider range of crop varieties than is available at present.

Clearly, the ultimate beneficiary of improved plant breeding is society at large via stable crop prices and improved UK food security (in relation to sugar beet and wheat). Improving the varieties of Miscanthus available would also facilitate its uptake amongst UK farmers and therefore contribute to UK bioenergy targets and a reduction in GHG emissions.

Whilst this project is focused on 3 key crops (sugar beet, wheat and miscanthus), optimizing PCBs for other crops may also be possible in further work.
Description Abstract produced for a paper that will be submitted shortly: Plant breeding is key to increasing crop yields. Achieved through the controlled self- or cross-pollination of individuals; it typically involves isolation, via 'bagging', of the flowers from selected parental plants. Paper, cellulose or synthetic materials are typically used to avoid unwanted self pollination or cross contamination. Low seed set can limit the rate of breeding progress and increase operating costs. In this study we hypothesized that a novel breathable 'nonwoven' fabric optimal for both pollination and seed set in multiple plant species could be developed. After determining the baseline pollen characteristics and usage requirements for four selected species (Arabidopsis, Miscanthus, wheat and sugar beet) we established an iterative three phase development and biological testing pipeline. This determined (1) the effects of fabric colour on seed set based on controlled environment testing of the model species Arabidopsis finding that white resulted in the most seeds, informing colour choice for further development. We then (2) developed three white nonwoven materials with different fibre and layering techniques and tested their performance in controlled environment selfing (Arabidopsis, sugar beet) and glasshouse hybridisation (Miscanthus, wheat) experiments finding no single optimal material for all species, but recording significant differences in performance by material type within species. We then (3) developed three additional novel nonwoven fabrics with increased air permeability and tested their biological performance in controlled environment selfing and glasshouse hybridization experiments, as previously. In both biological testing experiments an environmental interaction between material type and species was observed. To further understand this interaction a method to test the environmental decoupling was developed, showing that the nonwoven fabrics had superior water vapour transmission rates and temperature regulation compared to standard controls. Overall, nonwoven fabrics outperformed existing paper and cellulose-based bags for both pollination and seed set. No single nonwoven material had superior performance across the diverse species tested, indicating that different materials can optimize species-specific, rather than species-generic pollination and seed set.
Exploitation Route It will assist in breeding programmes.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink




including Industrial Biotechology

URL https://www.pbsinternational.com/knowledge-centre/type/research-data/
Description The know-how we have been generating on the effects of non woven fabrics on the humidity x temperature x light on seed set in Arabidopsis and Miscanthus is being used to improve the fabric properties by the industrial partners
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Societal


Description Development of improved Breeding technology 
Organisation PBS International Limited
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Experiments have been designed for testing crossing bags made from different materials.
Collaborator Contribution Access to their contacts on production of non woven fabrics
Impact The knowledge developed for the crossing bags is being scaled by PBS into crossing tents. We are not 'funded' partners in the ongoing work, but have been part of the process developing the 'stakeholder' requirements.
Start Year 2016