Nov 10, 2015
Seed breeding, crop development are pushing ahead


Funding, innovation and the subsequent education necessary to spread knowledge about emerging technologies are coming together as key elements in the long-range future of vegetable plant development and breeding.

The future is being driven by many researchers, breeders and growers who are turning to genomics, or DNA science, to optimize production. But will it be enough?

The Alexandria, Virginia-based American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) includes in its mission the promotion of innovation in seed and crop development. ASTA points out that the industry is encountering obstacles in promoting precision breeding tools.

“To a large extent, application of precision breeding tools is being stalled at the research and development stage because of uncertainty over public policy and unclear regulatory status of the new varieties,” according to ASTA. “Products developed through such breeding tools may be subjected to different regulatory requirements among trading partners, potentially leading to trade impediments and enforcement issues globally.

“Unnecessary regulation and oversight of products derived through precision breeding tools would result in undue, costly regulatory burdens, stifle innovation and prevent the uptake of advanced, innovative breeding applications by both industry and public breeders in developed and developing countries,” ASTA’s stated.

ASTA maintains that improved nutritional content of vegetable crops such as spinach, tomatoes, carrots and broccoli is a direct result of plant breeders’ increased understanding of the biology of plants and how their genes function.

The scientific understanding of how plant genes function in a coordinated manner will continue to increase, according to ASTA, as will the ability of plant breeders to develop new, more efficient and precise breeding tools as refinements of traditional breeding techniques. In most cases, the plant varieties developed using these new tools will be indistinguishable from varieties developed through classical breeding.

Traditional breeding involves selecting plants with desirable characteristics and cross-pollinating them to help bring out those desirable traits in successive generations of the plant.

ASTA’s position is that today’s use of precision breeding tools can be used to target specific genes in a plant’s genome (the whole DNA makeup of plants) to create the desired plant characteristic. They can be used to identify gene function in a plant’s wild relative to precisely and efficiently introduce the desired trait into a commercial variety. The efficiency, flexibility and low relative cost of these tools means they can be used by both public and commercial plant breeders including those in developing countries.

 Less funding, fewer breeders

The role of publicly funded plant breeding research in the future of food was the subject in Washington, D.C., recently, when William Tracy, a professor and chair of the Department of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed its importance during two Congressional briefings for Senate and House staff.

According to a report from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Tracy, who leads the largest public-sector sweet corn breeding program in the world, said he has observed a severe downsizing in plant breeding programs housed within the country’s land-grant universities over the past several decades.

Based on a survey he completed last year, Tracy said the number of researchers that focus on plant breeding at public universities has fallen more than 30 percent in the last 20 years, with estimates that public breeding capacity has diminished by as much as half over the past 50 years.

As noted by other experts in the plant-breeding field, Tracy believes that these public programs are now at risk of extinction, which would have severe implications for the U.S. seed system and the future of the food and farming system in the United States.

While private seed companies have a distinct role to play in developing new varieties of larger and more profitable crops, support for publicly funded plant breeding programs allows researchers more independence to complete longer term and riskier projects, work directly with underserved local markets and minor crops, increase food security by using exotic germplasm and respond to emerging threats, he said.

And because it takes anywhere from five to 20 years to develop a new variety of a crop before it’s available in the commercial seed market, Tracy said continuity is essential for successful plant breeding programs, and projects cannot be stopped at the end of a grant cycle if money runs out.

“The power and implications of plant breeding cannot be over-emphasized,” Tracy said. “By predicting the future, we are actually creating the future.”

The loss of public plant breeding programs is largely a consequence of decreasing state support for land-grant universities, he said.

Tracy advocated for increasing formula funds to rebuild the capacity of public land-grant breeding programs and increasing the portion of USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) dedicated to plant breeding.

He also encouraged farmers to collaborate with public plant breeders through USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, which has been spurring farmer-driven research innovations for over 25 years.

Private industry

With public research funding languishing, the work of private companies, such as San Diego-based Illumina, is being used as an example of how to fill the void to continue to address global food needs.

According to a news release, Illumina offers two primary technologies to support the agrigenomics market: next-generation sequencing and genotyping. Each technology addresses the unique needs of the agriculture community, in research and commercial settings.

Crucial to the process is recognizing how genomics increase understanding of genetic diversity in plants and animals.

According to Illumina, next-generation sequencing (NGS) can be useful to agricultural researchers who want to understand the complex genomes of crops or livestock, and can be used to develop a reference genome sequence from which to develop future tools for analysis of genetic traits in these plants and animals.

Illumina’s NGS technology can also be used to sequence the genomes of multiple representatives of a species and discover new genes and variants associated with different traits or characteristics, or for RNA sequencing to study gene expression in these species.

Once a sequence or set of relevant characteristics have been identified, arrays can be used to genotype many organisms of a species to understand the relevant genetic traits associated with a particular characteristic.

In research, NGS has been used extensively in crops to understand genome architecture and expression. Many crop species have large complex genomes that require the power of NGS to decipher. Another application is to improve understanding of viruses infecting crops and help prevent spread of infection.

Researchers indicate seed companies and academic institutions alike can use genomic information to accelerate breeding programs by selecting for combinations of genomic markers associated with desirable traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance or crop yield.

In doing so, seed lines are developed that can improve farming productivity, particularly as climate change threatens more arid regions of the world, according to the press release.

Academy builds ‘team’

Syngenta is among the companies that recognize plant breeding is currently undergoing rapid developments in genomics, analytics and other technologies. In addition to plant breeders, breeding programs need molecular biologists, computer scientists and numerous other specialists working together to bring advanced genetics and integrated crop solutions to market.

“Breeding is becoming more of a team sport,” Heather Merk, program lead for the  Syngenta Breeding Academy, said in a news release. “The better the training of each team member and the smoother the teamwork, the more likely the team will be productive.”

The Syngenta Breeding Academy is a global learning initiative designed to enable the continued development of scientists at Syngenta and beyond.

“In addition to building stronger individual and team capabilities, one of our goals is to help create a broader understanding of why breeding is important to our company and the world as a whole,” Merk said. “The academy also shows Syngenta employees the value of crossing disciplines and functional collaboration in the development of innovative products that benefit growers.”

Syngenta also is working with leading universities to help prepare students for careers in plant breeding and related disciplines, Merk said.

Gary Pullano, Vegetable Growers News


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