crop domestication Archives - The Global Plant Council

Student-driven plant breeding symposium addresses global challenges in the 21st century

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This week we spoke to Francisco Gomez and Ammani Kyanam, graduate students in the Soil and Crop Science Department at Texas A&M University, USA. They were part of the organizing committee for the recent Texas A&M Plant Breeding Symposium, a successful meeting run entirely by students at the University.

Francisco Gomez and Ammani Kyanam

Francisco Gomez and Ammani Kyanam, part of the student organizing committee of the Plant Breeding Symposium

Could you begin with a brief introduction to the Plant Breeding Symposium held at Texas A&M in February?

Texas A&M University is one of the largest academic and public plant breeding institutions worldwide, which trains breeders in a variety of programs. Every year, students at the University organize the Texas A&M Plant Breeding Symposium, which is part of the DuPont Pioneer series of symposia. The symposium provides a platform for graduate students to bridge the interaction between the public and private sectors and engage in conversations about the grand challenges facing humanity that could be addressed by plant breeding. It’s also a great chance to network with faculty, students, and industry representatives.


Could you tell us more about this theme and how the different sessions were chosen?

We wanted the theme of the meeting to mirror the university’s goal of thinking big to pinpoint solutions to modern global challenges using plant science and breeding. Every member of the committee had the opportunity propose a theme, which were then put to a vote.

Nikolai Vavilov

Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist and geneticist, was the inspiration for this year’s symposium. Image credit: Public Domain.

This year’s theme, “The Vavilov Method: Utilizing Genetic Diversity”, celebrated the life and career of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who identified the centers of origin of cultivated plants. We invited plant scientists and breeders who are applying Vavilov’s ideas through the conservation, collection, and effective utilization of genetic diversity in modern crop breeding programs. This year we also developed a workshop entitled “Where does a breeder go to find genetic diversity?”, which allowed students and faculty to talk about the importance of utilizing genetic diversity in crop improvement and to learn new tools to help them incorporate genetic diversity in breeding programs.


Could you tell us more about how you developed the workshop?

Our aim for the workshop was to engage students and faculty on where we can find genetic diversity, how we can use it, and to include a panel discussion on the challenges and the future of genetic diversity in modern plant breeding programs. As a new value-added event, the workshop was challenging to set up because it required a different set of skills to the rest of the meeting. Once we had an idea of what we wanted, we set up an initial meeting with our speakers where we brainstormed ideas. After several online meetings and e-mails with Professor Paul Gepts (UC Davis), Dr. Colin Khoury (Agricultural Research Service, USDA; check out his recent GPC blog here!), and Professor Susan McCouch (Cornell University), we finalized the structure of the workshop, the layout of the sessions, and the objectives for the speakers. We also had a representative from DivSeek, Dr. Ruth Bastow, on the discussion panel, who contributed to our discussion on future tools for accessing diversity in the future.


How has the symposium grown since the inaugural meeting in 2015?

Every year we want to make the symposium a memorable event, and we want other students and faculty to really get something out of it. We are learning more and more about the students and faculty with these events, particularly in terms of which topics are the most exciting or interesting. The symposium has also grown into a two-day event, with this year’s inclusion of the workshop.


Did you have to overcome any challenges in the organization of the event?

One of our biggest challenges was to secure funding for the event, which is free to attend. To add further value to our event, we wanted to have additional components such as a student research competition and/or workshop, which meant we had to aggressively fundraise from multiple sources. This involved writing a lot of grant proposals both to plant sciences departments across Texas A&M University, as well as to other sources of external funding.

We are grateful to DuPont Pioneer for providing a large amount of the funding. In 2017, we also received sponsorship from the Texas Institute for Genomic Science and Society, Departments of Soil and Crop Sciences, Molecular and Environmental Plant Science, Horticulture, Plant Pathology, and Biology, Texas Grain Sorghum Association, Texas Peanut Producers Board, and Cotton Incorporated. Our beverage sponsor was Pepsi and Kind Snacks was our snack sponsor.


What advice would you give a graduate student trying to organize a similar event?

Plan early and set small goals! Communication is key for a large team to organize such an event. We encourage groups to use Slack or some sort of team work interface. It really helped us to be in constant communication with each other during the months leading up to the symposium.


Could you tell us a little about your own research?

My research (Francisco Gomez) is focused on identifying genomic regions (known as quantitative trait loci; QTLs) associated with mechanical traits that are known to be associated with stem lodging, a major agronomic problem that reduces yields worldwide. My colleague and co-chair, Ammani Kyanam, received her Masters in Plant Breeding in while working in the cotton cytogenetics program in our department. Her research focused on developing genomic tools to facilitate the development of Chromosome Segment Substitution Lines for upland cotton. She is currently mapping QTLs for aphid resistance in sorghum for her Ph.D. You can learn more about the research of our individual committee members at http://plantbreedingsymposium.com/committee/.


How can our readers connect with you?

We have a strong social media presence via Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, where we post event videos, photos and periodical updates. Check them out below!

Facebook: TAMUPBsymposium

Instagram: @pbsymposium

Twitter: @pbsymposium

YouTube: Texas A&M Plant Breeding Symposium

Website: plantbreedingsymposium.com

Email: mailto:pbsymposium@gmail.com

Uncovering the secrets of ancient barley

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This week we speak to Dr Nils Stein, Group Leader of the Genomics of Genetic Resources group at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK). We discuss his recent work on the genomes of 6000-year-old cultivated barley grains, published in Nature Genetics, which made the headlines around the world.

Nils Stein

Dr Nils Stein, Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK)

Could you describe your work with the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK)?

The major research focuses of my group, the Genomics of Genetic Resources, are to continue sequencing the genomes of barley and wheat, perform comparative genomics on the Triticeae tribe, isolate genes of agronomic interest, and investigate the genomics of wild barley relatives.

We are currently leading the work to generate the barley reference genome, and we are also partners in several wheat genome sequencing projects. We are genotyping-by-sequencing (GBS) all 20 000 barley accessions in the IPK Genebank, as well as 10 000 pepper accessions as part of a Horizon 2020 project (G2P-SOL) investigating the Solanaceae crop species.
Your recent collaborative paper on the genomic analysis of 6,000-year-old barley grains made headlines around the world. What did this study involve?

This was an interdisciplinary study to sequence the DNA of 6000-year-old barley grains. The grains were excavated by a team of Israeli archaeologists and archaeobotanists led by Prof. Ehud Weiss, Bar-Ilan University, the DNA was extracted and sequenced by ancient DNA specialists Prof. Johannes Krause and Dr. Verena Schünemann in Germany, and the data were analyzed by Dr. Martin Mascher in the context of our comprehensive barley genome diversity information. This allowed the resulting sequence information to be put into a population genetic and ecogeographic context.

Ancient barley

Preserved remains of rope, seeds, reeds and pellets (left), and a desiccated barley grain (right) found at Yoram Cave in the Judean Desert. Credit: Uri Davidovich and Ehud Weiss.

What led you to the realization that barley domestication occurred very early in our agricultural history?

The genome of the analyzed ancient samples was highly conserved with extant barley landraces of the Levant region, which look very similar to today’s high-yielding barley varieties. Although suggestive and tendentious, this told us that the barley crop 6000 years ago looked very similar to extant material. The physical appearance and the archaeobotanical characters of the analyzed seeds also very much resembled modern barley.


These barley grains contain the oldest plant genomes reconstructed to date. Did you find any differences between the samples that might give us an insight into the traits that were first selected in the early domestication of the crop?

We have only scratched the surface so far. The major domestication genes controlling dehiscence, brittleness or row-type of the main inflorescence had the same alleles in the ancient samples that are found in extant barley, confirming that these traits were selected for early in domestication. Additional analyses on other genes controlling different traits in barley are still ongoing – bear in mind that many of the genes controlling major traits in barley are still unknown, which complicates the selection of targets for analysis.

Modern barley

Modern barley cultivar. Credit: Christian Scheja. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

 Do these grains have any genetic variation that we lack at key loci in modern barley lines, for example in stress or disease resistance?

This is matter of ongoing analysis. So far it is obvious that the most genetically similar extant landraces from the Levant region have accumulated natural mutations over the last 6000 years, resulting in additional variation that we don’t find in the ancient sample.


What can we expect from the barley genome projects in the future?

The International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium is preparing a manuscript on the reference sequence of barley. This will allow further analysis of the ancient DNA data with a more complete, genome-wide view, including the consideration of a more complete gene set than has been available so far. Our Israeli collaborators (Professor Ehud Weiss and Professor Tzion Fahima) have more ancient samples of similar quality. We hope we will be able to generate a more comprehensive view of the ancient population genomics of barley in the future, to better address the question of novel ancient alleles and lost genetic diversity.

The Barley Pan-Genome analysis will soon give us a better understanding of the structural variation in the barley genome. Putting the ancient DNA information into this more comprehensive genomic context will be very exciting. We also hope to be able to compare a variety of ancient samples of different ages to more precisely date the event of barley domestication.

You can read the paper here: Genomic analysis of 6000-year-old cultivated grain illuminates the domestication history of barley ($).

The Nature of Crop Domestication

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Why do we eat some plants but not others? What makes a good crop, and how have we transformed these species to suit our own needs?

Around 12,000 years ago, humans began to transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to a more settled agricultural life. We began to selectively breed cereals and other crops to improve desirable traits, such as their yields, taste and seed retention. Today we eat less than 1% of all flowering plant species, relying on a handful of staples for almost all of our calories.

Why do we eat so few plant species?

Professor John Warren, Aberystwyth University

Professor John Warren, Aberystwyth University

We spoke with Professor John Warren at Aberystwyth University in the UK, who delves into the history of crop domestication in his new book, ‘The Nature of Crops: How We Came to Eat the Plants We Do,’ published on 24th April 2015. He blogs about how we came to eat certain plants over at Pick of the Crop, and said that his book developed from there. “The stories of crop domestication are just so interesting, weird, biologically strange, fun – they just demand to be told,” he enthused.

So why do we eat so few of the edible plants in the world? Based on his research into gene flow and plant breeding systems, Professor Warren presents novel theories in his book: “Previously people have argued that it’s because most plant are poisonous, but I don’t think that holds water. We actively seek out toxic plants as crops; plants with large food stores tend to be well defended with toxins. Instead I argue that it’s plant sexual habits that limit crop domestication. Plants with the usual pollination mechanisms don’t make ideal crops as they will fail to set seed when grown on an agricultural scale. Thus we domesticate things that are wind pollinated or pollinated by common generalist insects.”

Science-led crop breeding

Why do we eat poisonous plants?

How did our ancestors come to realise that rhubarb leaves are poisonous but the stems make a tasty crumble? Professor Warren says, “Its discovery was an accident and a fairly recent one – but read the book for the full story.” Image credit: Cory Doctorow used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Professor Warren works at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, which houses much of the research into agriculture and the environment that ties into the theme of his book. “Previously it’s been argued that there haven’t really been any new crops in the last 5,000 years. Here in Aberystwyth, we know that ryegrass, clover, elephant grass and others are still in the process of being domesticated, so you don’t need to be an archaeologist to study the process,” he explained. In addition to breeding new varieties of cereals and forage crops for food and feed, the Public Good Plant Breeding group at IBERS are also in the process of breeding Miscanthus, a fast-growing grass species that could be used for sustainable bioenergy in the future.

Resources like the Diversity Seek (DivSeek) initiative, established by the Global Plant Council in association with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the CGIAR Consortium and the Secretariat of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, could be used to enable science-driven crop breeding and domestication. DivSeek aims to unlock the genetic diversity that is currently stored in genebanks around the world by using cutting edge sequencing, phenotyping and ‘big data’ technologies. The genetic variation that is identified can then be used as the basis for breeding programs and could assist in the domestication of novel crops.

The future of agriculture

Drought damage

Drought damage in California, 2014. Image credit: US Department of Agriculture used under CC BY 2.0.

The crops we eat today were domesticated in highly fertile conditions; this means they are nutritious but tend to demand a high input of fertilizers and water. Professor Warren argues that we can use modern science to develop more sustainable ways to feed the global population: “It’s important that we start to think outside the box and try and domesticate a whole range of new crops that are more sustainable and less demanding of agricultural inputs.” An important source of future crop species could be stress-tolerant plants living in difficult environments: “I think the crops of the future could still be waiting to be domesticated from plants growing in harsh conditions,” explained Professor Warren.

Professor Warren also discussed how we could use underutilized crops in new ways to make agriculture more sustainable in the future: “I think and hope that we will eat more species, and that we will grow many more of these as perennials in poly-culture systems. That makes ecological sense in terms of niche exploitation and yield sustainability. It also makes more genetic sense in terms of resistance to pests and diseases.” The only downside, he said, is that these systems are so different to what we have now that we will need innovative research to develop them.

About Professor John Warren

Akee fruit

The akee is the national fruit of Jamaica. Image credit: Loren Sztajler, used under CC BY-ND 2.0.

John is a plant ecologist at Aberystwyth University, UK, with research interests in the origin and maintenance of diversity and enhancement of conservation value, particularly within agricultural ecosystems. He is the Director of Teaching and Learning and a Professor of Botany in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences. John says the strangest plant he’s ever eaten is the akee, a plant beloved of Jamaicans that looks and tastes a bit like scrambled eggs but which is delicious with saltfish.

Over to you

What do you think will be the most important crops of tomorrow, and which underutilized plants will become dietary staples in an effort to feed the world more sustainably?