Research on watercress in the laboratory of Gail Taylor
Beginning in about 2005, Gail Taylor decided to initiate a new watercress research program, largely because very little was known about the genetics and genomics of tis crop, there were no breeding programs, globally, for improvement and limited understanding of how the crop could be optimized for different growing systems, such as the new indoor and vertical technologies that were just around the corner.
A first PhD student – harnessing the power of natural genetic variation in watercress
Adrienne Payne initiated the research on watercress during her PhD at the University of Southampton. She achieved three things, Firstly, she took advantage of a wild watercress collection that had been held in a vegetable germplasm repository in the UK and found more that 40 ‘accessions’ of watercress from around the world. She found interesting accessions that were ‘dwarf’ and one that had better chemical properties that that grown commercially in the UK. Secondly, she did the research that resulting in plant variety rights and naming of a dwarf watercress, ‘boldrewood’ and finally, she quantified gene expression across contrasting wild watercress germplasm to identify individual plants suitable to establish a new watercress breeding program for enhanced anti-cancer ability, and lower environmental footprint.
Initiating a new watercress pre-breeding program
Nikol Voutsina joined the laboratory and made crosses between contrasting lines from the wild watercress collection. She established the fist bi-parental mapping population of watercress and took this to a F2 generating the first molecular genetic map and sequencing this using DDRAD- a new technique then available to do DNA sequencing in a cheap way of multiple individuals. She grew the population in field and indoor environments and tested 180 of the F2 lines to assess their ability to kill cancer cells in a breast cell cancer assay.
Developing the first watercress genomic sequences, assembling and annotating the watercress genome
Following a move to UC Davis, several technologies were used to develop the first sequenced genome of watercress. Annabelle Damerum helped to extract the DNA, develop the approach and work on the annotation analysis to launch the first watercress genome and molecular genetic map of watercress.
Moving watercress indoors into a vertical farm
Watercress is ideally suited to indoor hydroponic growing systems and most recently we have begun working in a vertical farm to undertaken selective breeding for improved flavor, sweetness and anti-cancer chemistry. We are breeding watercress for better phosphate use efficiency. Yufie Qian and Lauren Hibbert are working actively in 2022 to undertake original research on watercress to contribute to their PhDs.