Delfina’s research focuses on the exploitation of biodiversity in cereals – in particular ancient bread wheat subspecies such as macha, compactum, sphaerococcum and spelta – through genetic and genomic analysis, coupled with detailed phenotyping, to identify useful genes for wheat breeding. With this aim, she set up a collection of around 200 worldwide bread wheat subspecies that is being characterized for traits related to morphology, physiology, quality and disease resistance, in collaboration with ICARDA (Morocco) and the Genetic Resources Institute of Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences (Azerbaijan).
Since 2014, Delfina has been involved in several wheat projects such as a genome-wide association study in bread wheat and monococcum for morphological, phenological and quality traits. In 2017, she worked on the characterization of bread wheat breeding lines for allelic variants at resistant genes for rusts and fusarium. Delfina is also actively involved in European and regional networks to study, conserve and promote the utilization of cereal diversity and genetic resources, such as the European Evaluation Network on Wheat and Barley established by the European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources (ECPGR), and the project CerealMed (enhancing diversity in Mediterranean cereal farming systems) established by the Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area (PRIMA).
What motivated you to become a geneticist? How did you become involved in genomics?
I became a plant geneticist quite by chance. Immediately after graduation, my idea was to work on human diseases, then, waiting for an opportunity, I started working at CREA convinced that I would only stay a few months. Working with cereals soon fascinated me: their life cycle allows one to follow all the growth phases in a relatively short time, plan crosses, and obtain the desired plants. Today, I have been working at CREA for almost 18 years. I started dealing with genetics during my PhD. It was a powerful tool to describe and assist my work in experimental fields, but it was during my experience in the IWGSC that I began working with genomics.
How did you come to work on wheat? And why bread wheat?
At the beginning of my career at CREA, my research activities were focused on genetics and genomics in barley. As a postdoctoral guest scientist, I spent eight months at IPK (Germany) where I joined the team of Nils Stein to develop a physical map of the barley genome. This allowed me to become familiar with the basic procedures and principles of physical mapping in large genome cereal species.
While I was at IPK, the Research Centre for Genomics and Bioinformatics had started physical mapping of bread wheat chromosome 5A as part of the IWGSC. So, when I went back to Italy, with the expertise acquired at IPK, I took the lead of the 5A physical mapping project. Talking about being in the right place at the right time!
What would you say are the benefits of being part of an international consortium?
An international consortium allows convergent interests and skills to come together to tackle complex challenges that require not only scientific but also organizational and coordination expertise, as well as financial support that are impossible to obtain by small groups. For me, it was really exciting and a great responsibility to be part of a team with such an important long-term aim as sequencing the most widely grown crop worldwide.
How have you used the data you generated within IWGSC projects in other research projects in your lab?
The resources produced during physical mapping of chromosome 5A (consensus genetic map, Radiation hybrid panel of Chinese Spring) were employed in the high-resolution mapping of the pericentromeric region on 5AS harboring the Qfhs.ifa contributing to enhanced Fusarium head blight resistance in wheat, in a long collaboration with H. Buerstmayr’s group at BOKU (Austria).
The IWGSC recently released v2.0 of its high quality reference sequence of bread wheat (RefSeq). What other resources are still needed to meet the needs of wheat scientists and breeders?
Aware of the difficulties in keeping up with the increasing availability of genomic data, I believe it would be very useful to have a user-friendly system to interconnect all the available information referring to a given gene, QTL or phenotypic trait (associated markers, homologies, cloning, editing, allelic variants, RefSeq position, annotation, gene network, mutants, expression levels). It might sound utopian, but I think we need to invest in this direction.
What are the next challenges for the application of genomics in wheat breeding?
The future of agriculture depends on sustainable and healthy productivity driven by three main actors: farmers, breeders and scientists. What is still inadequate is the communication among them. Genomics is getting faster and faster, producing powerful tools that are barely used, and only by big companies. The scientific community should dedicate time and resource to train young molecular breeders, as they are the bridge between lab and field. They should be aware and up to date on the possible applications offered by genomics and trained to use genetic tools efficiently. Only in this way will wheat breeding become faster, more accurate, and able to address environmental challenges.
What will be the biggest advances in wheat research in the next 5-10 year?
Food availability and safety, especially when referring to a key food such as wheat, should always be guaranteed. Wheat research is called upon to provide innovative and effective strategies to guide the development of more productive and more resistant varieties. I believe that an exploitation of landraces, undomesticated wilds, ancient crop relatives can have a significant impact in this direction, guiding breeding decisions and providing solutions towards more sustainable productivity. This will only be possible through a deep knowledge of these resources, with accurate genetic and phenotypic characterizations. The first is no longer a limit today, while the latter is still suffering from several limitations; however, I think that the constant advances in technology will fill this gap in the coming years.
What are your future plans?
In 2017, I undertook the development of two multi-parent nested association mapping (NAM) populations by nesting 40 diverse founders (belonging to different ancient bread wheat spp) within two T.a. spp aestivum parents. I would like to see these evolving populations become a resource for wheat geneticists, physiologists, and pathologists which would provide genetic variation for several traits and estimate effects related to genetic background, unlocking the genetic potential of these ancient subspecies. To pursue this goal, my commitment will not be enough. I’m looking forward to enlarging my group and to generating the interest of other colleagues for these genetic resources.
Delfina obtained a M.Sc. in Biological Sciences from the University of Parma in 2002 and a PhD in Agricultural Sciences and Biotechnology from the University of Modena-Reggio Emilia in 2007. She has been working at the CREA-Research Centre for Genomics and Bioinformatics since 2002, as a scientific collaborator, a PhD student, a postdoctoral researcher and then as a permanent Researcher since 2010.
When not working in the lab and in the field, Delfina loves the outdoor, especially hiking in the beautiful Dolomites mountains, where she can unplug and recharge. In her free time at home, she plays folk guitar and ukulele, and practices yoga.
Publication date: 11/02/2020