The origins of modern human society derive, in large part, from the transition to an agrarian lifestyle that occurred in parallel at multiple locations around the world, including ~10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia*. Early agriculturalists wrought a revolution that would define human trajectory to the current day, domesticating wild plant and animal species into crops and livestock. The wild progenitors of chickpea, for example, were among a handful of Mesopotamian neo-crops, brought from hilly slopes into more fertile and cultivable plains and river valleys. In doing so, these farmers selected a small number of useful traits largely based on natural mutations that made wild forms amenable to agriculture, such as the consistency of flowering, upright growth, and seeds that remained attached to plants rather than dispersing.
Collecting wild chickpea plants, soil, and seed in southeastern Turkey. Image credit: Chickpea Innovation lab.
An unintended consequence of crop domestication was the loss of the vast majority of genetic diversity found in the wild populations. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea at the University of California, Davis (Chickpea Innovation Lab) documented a ~95% loss of genetic variation from wild species to modern elite varieties. This reduction in genetic variation constrains our ability to adapt the chickpea crop to the range of challenges facing modern agriculture.
The Chickpea Innovation Lab is re-awakening the untapped potential of wild chickpea and directing that potential to solve global problems in agriculture, especially in the developing world. Combining longstanding practices in ecology with the remarkable power of genomics and sophisticated computational methods, we have spanned the gap from the wild systems to cultivated crops. Beginning with the analysis of ~2,000 wild genomes, the simple technology of genetic crosses applied at massive scale has delivered a large and representative suite of wild variation into agricultural germplasm. These traits are now being actively used for phenotyping and breeding in the U.S., India, Ethiopia and Turkey, and our team is currently prospecting for tolerance to drought, heat and cold; increased pest and disease resistance; improved seed nutritional content; nitrogen fixation; plant architecture; and yield.
Characterizing wild germplasm
Visiting Ethiopian student, Sultan Mohammed Yimer investigating disease resistance in wild chickpea. Image credit: Chickpea Innovation lab.
Along the way, the Chickpea Innovation Lab has deposited wild germplasm into the multi-lateral system, providing open access to a treasure trove of genetic variation. The Chickpea Innovation Lab derives support from numerous sponsors whose funds enable the collection, characterization, and utilization of this vital germplasm resource.
A unique strength of the lab is that our diverse sponsorship permits activities ranging from fundamental scientific investigation to applied agricultural research and product development.
An additional objective of the Lab is to train and educate students in the developing world. Towards that end, 18 international and nine domestic students, postdoctoral scientists and visiting faculty have received training in disciplines ranging from computational biology, plant pathology and entomology, to agricultural microbiology, and molecular genetics and breeding.
Harvesting progeny derived by crossing wild and cultivated chickpea plants in Davis, California. Image credit: Chickpea Innovation lab.
* Mesopotamia, literally “between the rivers”, is the region of modern day southeastern Turkey, bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
A nano-sized bio-degradable clay-comprising double stranded ribonucleic acid (dsRNA) could offer a cost-effective, clean and green alternative to chemical-based plant pesticides.
Australian researchers from the University of Queensland have successfully used a gene-silencing spray, named BioClay, a combination of biomolecules and clay, to protect tobacco plants from a virus for 20 days with a single application. Their study has been published in Nature Plants.
“When BioClay is sprayed onto a plant, the virus-specific dsRNA is slowly released from the clay nanosheets into the plant. This activates a pathway in the plant that is a natural defence mechanism. The dsRNA is chopped up into small bits of RNA by enzymes of this pathway. These small bits attack the virus when it infects the plant without altering the plant genome,” explains lead researcher, Neena Mitter.
“Even with current pesticides, we lose up to 40 per cent of our crop productivity because of pests and pathogens. We are hoping that having BioClay in the mix as an environmentally friendly, sustainable crop protection measure will reduce crop losses,” Mitter adds.
“The clay-based delivery technology could represent a positive inflection point in the progress towards commercialisation of topical RNAi. This is a non-GM, environmentally benign and very specific technology.”
John Killmer, APSE
While chemical-based pesticides kill the targeted insect, they can also affect a range of other insects that are beneficial. Mitter says, “BioClay is specific and it only kills the pathogen being targeted. Currently farmers use insecticides to kill the vector that comes with the viruses, but with BioClay we can target the virus itself.”
BioClay field trials may begin in Australia by year-end. “The first test will be on a virus that infects vegetable crops — capsicum, tomato, chilli,” Mitter tells SciDev.Net.
Farmers can use the existing equipment to deliver BioClay and the researchers are hopeful that it will be a commercially viable product for farmers everywhere. The clay component is cheap to make, but not the RNA.
Several companies like APSE, a US based startup, are working on the mass production of RNAs. APSE is developing RNA manufacturing technology for RNA interference (RNAi) or gene silencing applications.
“Our technology for RNA production should be ready in 2-3 years. We are targeting US$2 per gram,” APSE’s John Killmer tells SciDev.Net.
Killmer says, “The clay-based delivery technology could represent a positive inflection point in the progress towards commercialisation of topical RNAi. This is a non-GM, environmentally benign and very specific technology.”
RNAi technology is being used by many in the agriculture industry including the biotech firm Monsanto. The company’s BioDirect technology is focused on applications of RNAi directly onto the leaves of a plant.
Monsanto’s spokesperson John Combest tells SciDev.Net, “As insects develop resistance to certain classes of pesticides, giving farmers another option to control these pests is critical. The idea is not to replace any given system of farming, whether modern GM systems or others — it’s to provide farmers with products that can complement or replace agricultural chemical products.”
Sales of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) have exploded in the last decade, with prices more than tripling between 2008 and 2014. The popularity of this pseudocereal comes from its highly nutritious seeds, which resemble grains and contain a good balance of protein, vitamins, and minerals. The nourishing nature of quinoa meant it was prized by the Incas, who called it the “Mother grain”.
Quinoa is a popular ‘grain’, but it is more closely related to spinach and beetroot than cereals like wheat or barley. Image credit: Flickr user. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.
Quinoa is native to the Andes of South America, where it thrives in a range of conditions from coastal regions to alpine regions of up to 4000 m above sea level. Its resilience and nutritious seeds means that quinoa has been identified as a key crop for enhancing food security, but there are currently very few breeding programs targeting this species.
The challenge of improving the efficiency and sustainability of quinoa production has so far been restricted by the lack of a reference genome. This week, a team of researchers led by Professor Mark Tester (King Abdullah University of Science & Technology; KAUST) addressed this issue, publishing a high-quality genome sequence for quinoa in Nature. They compared the genome with that of related species to characterize the evolution and domestication of the crop, and investigated the genetic diversity of economically important traits.
The evolution of quinoa
Tester and colleagues used an array of genomics techniques to assemble 1.39 Gb of the estimated 1.45-1.50 Gb full length of quinoa’s genome. Quinoa is a tetraploid, meaning it has four copies of each chromosome. The researchers shed light on the evolutionary history of this crop by sequencing descendants of the two diploid species (each containing two sets of chromosomes) that hybridized to generate quinoa; kañiwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule) and Swedish goosefoot (Chenopodium suecicum). Comparing these sequences to quinoa and other relatives, the team showed that the hybridization event likely occurred between 3.3 and 6.3 million years ago. A comparison with other closely related Chenopodium species also suggested that, contrary to previous predictions, quinoa may have been domesticated twice, both in highland and coastal environments.
Quinoa seeds are coated with soap-like chemicals called saponins, which have a bitter taste that deters herbivores. Saponins can disrupt the cell membranes of red blood cells, so they have to be removed before human consumption, but this process is costly, so quinoa breeders are always looking for varieties that produce lower levels of saponins.
Sweet (low-saponin) quinoa strains do occur naturally, but the genes that regulate this phenotype were previously unknown. Tester and colleagues investigated sweet and bitter quinoa strains and discovered that a single gene (TRITERPENE SAPONIN BIOSYNTHESIS ACTIVATING REGULATOR-LIKE 1 [TSARL1]) controls the amount of saponins produced in the seeds. The low-saponin quinoa strains contained mutations in TSARL1 that prevented it from functioning properly. This is a key target for the improvement of quinoa in the future, although farmers will have to find new ways to protect their crops from birds and other seed predators!
The high-quality reference genome for quinoa generated by Tester and colleagues is likely to be vital for allowing many exciting improvements in the future. Breeders hoping to improve the yield, ease of harvest, stress tolerance, and saponin content of quinoa can develop genetic markers to speed up breeding for these key traits, improving the productivity of quinoa varieties and enhancing future food security.
Read the paper in Nature: Jarvis et al., 2017. The genome of Chenopodium quinoa. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature21370
Thank you to Professor Mark Tester (KAUST) for providing information used in this post!
Struggling East African dairy farmers could benefit from new varieties of high-quality, drought-resistant forage grass known as Brachiaria that boosts milk production by 40 per cent, a report says.
The forage grass could enable farmers to increase their incomes, according to experts at the Colombia-headquartered International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) – a CGIAR Research Center.
Steven Prager, a co-author of the report — which was published last month — and a senior scientist in integrated modelling at the CIAT, says the report was based on many years of forage research in Latin America and the Caribbean, and recent field trials in Kenya and Rwanda from 2011 to 2016.
According to Prager, the study demonstrates the high potential for improved forages in East Africa and high payoff for investment in improved forages.
“The results are based on multiple scenarios of an economic surplus model with inputs derived from a combination of databases, feedback from subject matter experts and a literature review,” he explains, adding that the economic analysis was carried out at CIAT headquarters with the support of tropical forage experts in East Africa.
“The objective of this study was to understand the potential payoff for investment in action to improve dissemination and use of improved forages,” Prager tells SciDev.Net.
“The objective of this study was to understand the potential payoff for investment in action to improve dissemination and use of improved forages.”
Steven Prager, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)
One of the big unknowns in the development and implementation of agricultural technology, according to Prager, is how many potential users are required to make it worthwhile to invest in the development and designation of different technologies.
Solomon Mwendia, a co-author of the report and forage agronomist at CIAT, Kenya, says the Brachiaria grass is climate-friendly and has high crude protein and less fiber, which leads to better use and digestion by cattle, in turn leading to less methane gas produced for each unit of livestock product such as milk or meat. Methane is one of the gases associated with global warming.
“This grass is relatively drought-tolerant compared to the Napier or elephant grass commonly used in East Africa. In addition, the grass can easily be conserved as hay for utilisation during forages scarcity or for sale,” Mwendia adds.
Smallholder dairy farming is important in East Africa for household nutrition and income. In Kenya, for instance, Mwendia says that milk production increased by 150 per cent between 2004 and 2012, from 197.3 million litres to 497.9 million litres.
The grass is native to Africa, according to Mwendia. It can grow in areas with up to 3,000 millimetres of rainfall and also withstand dry seasons of three to six months during which the leaf may remain green while other tropical species die. These conditions exist in other regions outside eastern Africa such as in Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Sita Ghimire, a senior scientist at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub, who leads a research programme that focuses on Brachiaria, says 40 per cent increase in milk production is achievable in East Africa after feeding livestock with Brachiaria.
“Forage has been always a major challenge in livestock production in East Africa. It is mainly because of declining pastureland, frequent and prolonged drought and not many farmers conserve forage for dry season,” Ghimire says.
The major challenges for adoption of Brachiaria technology in East Africa are limited availability of seeds or vegetative materials, lack of standardised agronomic practices for different production environments and lack of varieties that are well adapted to East African environment, Ghimire explains, citing other challenges such as pest and diseases, and low funding forage research and development.
Another fantastic year of discovery is over – read on for our 2016 plant science top picks!
A Zostera marina meadow in the Archipelago Sea, southwest Finland. Image credit: Christoffer Boström (Olsen et al., 2016. Nature).
The year began with the publication of the fascinating eelgrass (Zostera marina) genome by an international team of researchers. This marine monocot descended from land-dwelling ancestors, but went through a dramatic adaptation to life in the ocean, in what the lead author Professor Jeanine Olsen described as, “arguably the most extreme adaptation a terrestrial… species can undergo”.
One of the most interesting revelations was that eelgrass cannot make stomatal pores because it has completely lost the genes responsible for regulating their development. It also ditched genes involved in perceiving UV light, which does not penetrate well through its deep water habitat.
Plants are known to form new organs throughout their lifecycle, but it was not previously clear how they organized their cell development to form the right shapes. In February, researchers in Germany used an exciting new type of high-resolution fluorescence microscope to observe every individual cell in a developing lateral root, following the complex arrangement of their cell division over time.
Using this new four-dimensional cell lineage map of lateral root development in combination with computer modelling, the team revealed that, while the contribution of each cell is not pre-determined, the cells self-organize to regulate the overall development of the root in a predictable manner.
Watch the mesmerizing cell division in lateral root development in the video below, which accompanied the paper:
In March, a Spanish team of researchers revealed how the anti-wilting molecular machinery involved in preserving cell turgor assembles in response to drought. They found that a family of small proteins, the CARs, act in clusters to guide proteins to the cell membrane, in what author Dr. Pedro Luis Rodriguez described as “a kind of landing strip, acting as molecular antennas that call out to other proteins as and when necessary to orchestrate the required cellular response”.
In April, we received an amazing insight into the ‘decision-making ability’ of plants when a Swiss team discovered that plants can punish mutualist fungi that try to cheat them. In a clever experiment, the researchers provided a plant with two mutualistic partners; a ‘generous’ fungus that provides the plant with a lot of phosphates in return for carbohydrates, and a ‘meaner’ fungus that attempts to reduce the amount of phosphate it ‘pays’. They revealed that the plants can starve the meaner fungus, providing fewer carbohydrates until it pays its phosphate bill.
Author Professor Andres Wiemskenexplains: “The plant exploits the competitive situation of the two fungi in a targeted manner, triggering what is essentially a market-based process determined by cost and performance”.
The transition of ancient plants from water onto land was one of the most important events in our planet’s evolution, but required a massive change in plant biology. Suddenly plants risked drying out, so had to develop new ways to survive drought.
In May, an international team discovered a key gene in moss (Physcomitrella patens) that allows it to tolerate dehydration. This gene, ANR, was an ancient adaptation of an algal gene that allowed the early plants to respond to the drought-signaling hormone ABA. Its evolution is still a mystery, though, as author Dr. Sean Stevensonexplains: “What’s interesting is that aquatic algae can’t respond to ABA: the next challenge is to discover how this hormone signaling process arose.”
Sometimes revisiting old ideas can pay off, as a US team revealed in June. In 1930, Ernst Münch hypothesized that transport through the phloem sieve tubes in the plant vascular tissue is driven by pressure gradients, but no-one really knew how this would account for the massive pressure required to move nutrients through something as large as a tree.
Professor Michael Knoblauch and colleagues spent decades devising new methods to investigate pressures and flow within phloem without disrupting the system. He eventually developed a suite of techniques, including a picogauge with the help of his son, Jan, to measure tiny pressure differences in the plants. They found that plants can alter the shape of their phloem vessels to change the pressure within them, allowing them to transport sugars over varying distances, which provided strong support for Münch flow.
BLOG: We featured similar work (including an amazing video of the wound response in sieve tubes) by Knoblauch’s collaborator, Dr. Winfried Peters, on the blog – read it here!
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.
In July, an international and highly multidisciplinary team published the genome of 6,000-year-old barley grains excavated from a cave in Israel, the oldest plant genome reconstructed to date. The grains were visually and genetically very similar to modern barley, showing that this crop was domesticated very early on in our agricultural history. With more analysis ongoing, author Dr. Verena Schünemannpredicts that “DNA-analysis of archaeological remains of prehistoric plants will provide us with novel insights into the origin, domestication and spread of crop plants”.
BLOG: We interviewed Dr. Nils Stein about this fascinating work on the blog – click here to read more!
Another exciting cereal paper was published in August, when an Australian team revealed that C4 photosynthesis occurs in wheat seeds. Like many important crops, wheat leaves perform C3 photosynthesis, which is a less efficient process, so many researchers are attempting to engineer the complex C4 photosynthesis pathway into C3 crops.
This discovery was completely unexpected, as throughout its evolution wheat has been a C3 plant. Author Professor Robert Henrysuggested: “One theory is that as [atmospheric] carbon dioxide began to decline, [wheat’s] seeds evolved a C4 pathway to capture more sunlight to convert to energy.”
Professor Stefan Jansson cooks up “Tagliatelle with CRISPRy fried vegetables”. Image credit: Stefan Jansson.
September marked an historic event. Professor Stefan Jansson cooked up the world’s first CRISPR meal, tagliatelle with CRISPRy fried vegetables (genome-edited cabbage). Jansson has paved the way for CRISPR in Europe; while the EU is yet to make a decision about how CRISPR-edited plants will be regulated, Jansson successfully convinced the Swedish Board of Agriculture to rule that plants edited in a manner that could have been achieved by traditional breeding (i.e. the deletion or minor mutation of a gene, but not the insertion of a gene from another species) cannot be treated as a GMO.
Phytochromes help plants detect day length by sensing differences in red and far-red light, but a UK-Germany research collaboration revealed that these receptors switch roles at night to become thermometers, helping plants to respond to seasonal changes in temperature.
Dr Philip Wiggeexplains: “Just as mercury rises in a thermometer, the rate at which phytochromes revert to their inactive state during the night is a direct measure of temperature. The lower the temperature, the slower phytochromes revert to inactivity, so the molecules spend more time in their active, growth-suppressing state. This is why plants are slower to grow in winter”.
A fossil ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) leaf with its modern counterpart. Image credit: Gigascience.
In November, a Chinese team published the genome of Ginkgo biloba¸ the oldest extant tree species. Its large (10.6 Gb) genome has previously impeded our understanding of this living fossil, but researchers will now be able to investigate its ~42,000 genes to understand its interesting characteristics, such as resistance to stress and dioecious reproduction, and how it remained almost unchanged in the 270 million years it has existed.
Author Professor Yunpeng Zhaosaid, “Such a genome fills a major phylogenetic gap of land plants, and provides key genetic resources to address evolutionary questions [such as the] phylogenetic relationships of gymnosperm lineages, [and the] evolution of genome and genes in land plants”.
The year ended with another fascinating discovery from a Danish team, who used fluorescent tags and microscopy to confirm the existence of metabolons, clusters of metabolic enzymes that have never been detected in cells before. These metabolons can assemble rapidly in response to a stimulus, working as a metabolic production line to efficiently produce the required compounds. Scientists have been looking for metabolons for 40 years, and this discovery could be crucial for improving our ability to harness the production power of plants.
Genome editing technologies comprise a diverse set of molecular tools that allow the targeted modification of a DNA sequence within a genome. Unlike “traditional” breeding, genome editing does not rely on random DNA recombination; instead it allows the precise targeting of specific DNA sequences of interest. Genome editing approaches induce a double strand break (DSB) of the DNA molecule at specific sites, activating the cell’s DNA repair system. This process could be either error-prone, thus used by scientists to deactivate “undesired” genes, or error-free, enabling target DNA sequences to be “re-written” or the insertion of DNA fragments in a specific genomic position.
The most promising among the genome editing technologies, CRISPR/Cas9, was chosen as Science’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year. Cas9 is an enzyme able to target a specific position of a genome thanks to a small RNA molecule called guide RNA (gRNA). gRNAs are easy to design and can be delivered to cells along with the gene encoding Cas9, or as a pre-assembled Cas9-gRNA protein-RNA complex. Once inside the cell, Cas9 cuts the target DNA sequence homologous to the gRNAs, producing DSBs.
The guide RNA (sgRNA) directs Cas9 to a specific region of the genome, where it induces a double-strand break in the DNA. On the left, the break is repaired by non-homologous-end joining, which can result in insertion/deletion (indel) mutations. On the right, the homologous-directed recombination pathway creates precise changes using a supplied template DNA. Credit: Ran et al. (2013). Nature Protocols.
Genome editing in crops
Together with the increased data availability on crop genomes, genome editing techniques such as CRISPR are allowing scientists to carry out ambitious research on crop plants directly, building on the knowledge obtained during decades of investigation in model plants.
The concept of CRISPR was first tested in crops by generating cultivars that are resistant to herbicides, as this is an easy trait to screen for and identify. One of the first genome-edited crops, a herbicide-resistant oilseed rape produced by Cibus, has already been grown and harvested in the USA in 2015.
Researchers used CRISPR to engineer a wheat variety resistant to powdery mildew (shown here), a major disease of this crop. Image credit: NY State IPM Program. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.
Genome editing could also revolutionize the management of viral plant disease. The CRISPR/Cas9 system was originally discovered in bacteria, where it provided them with molecular immunity against viruses, but it can also be moved into plants. Scientists can transform plants to produce the Cas9 and gRNAs that target viral DNA, reducing virus accumulation; alternatively, they can suppress those plant genes that are hijacked by the virus to mediate its own diffusion in the plants. Since most plants are defenseless against viruses and there are no chemical controls available for plant viruses, the main method to stop the spread of these diseases is still the destruction of the infected plant. For the first time in history, scientists have an effective weapon to fight back against plant viruses.
The cassava brown streak disease virus can destroy cassava crops, threatening the food security of the 300 million people who rely on this crop in Africa. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson (for more on this topic, read her blog here).
Genome editing will be particularly useful in the genetic improvement of many crops that are propagated mainly by vegetative reproduction, and so very difficult to improve by traditional breeding methods involving crossing (e.g. cassava, banana, grape, potato). For example, using TALENs, scientists from Cellectisedited a potato line to minimize the accumulation of reducing sugars that may be converted into acrylamide (a possible carcinogen) during cooking.
Concerns about off-targets
One of the hypothesized risks of using CRISPR/Cas9 is the potential targeting of undesired DNA regions, called off-targets. It is possible to limit the potential for off-targets by designing very specific gRNAs, and all of the work published so far either did not detect any off-targets or, if detected, they occurred at a very low frequency. The number of off-target mutations produced by CRISPR/Cas9 is therefore minimal, especially if compared with the widely accepted random mutagenesis of crops used in plant breeding since the 1950s.
GM or not-GM
Genome editing is interesting from a regulatory point of view too. After obtaining the desired heritable mutation using CRISPR/Cas9, it is possible to remove the CRISPR/Cas9 integrated vectors from the genome using simple genetic segregation, leaving no trace of the genome modification other than the mutation itself. This means that some countries (including the USA, Canada, and Argentina) consider the products of genome editing on a case-by-case basis, ruling that a crop is non-GM when it contains gene combinations that could have been obtained through crossing or random mutation. Many other countries are yet to issue an official statement on CRISPR, however.
Recently, scientists showed that is possible to edit the genome of plants without adding any foreign DNA and without the need for bacteria- or virus-mediated plant transformation. Instead, a pre-assembled Cas9-gRNA ribonucleoprotein (RNP) is delivered to plant cells in vitro, which can edit the desired region of the genome before being rapidly degraded by the plant endogenous proteases and nucleases. This non-GM approach can also reduce the potential of off-target editing, because of the minimal time that the RNP is present inside the cell before being degraded. RNP-based genome editing has been already applied to tobacco plants, rice, and lettuce, as well as very recently to maize.
In conclusion, genome editing techniques, and CRISPR/Cas9 in particular, offers scientists and plant breeders a flexible and relatively easy approach to accelerate breeding practices in a wide variety of crop species, providing another tool that we can use to improve food security in the future.
For more on CRISPR, check out this recent TED Talk from Ellen Jorgensen:
About the author
Dr Damiano Martignago is a plant molecular biologist who graduated from Padua University, Italy, with a degree in Food Biotechnology in 2009. He obtained his PhD in Biology at Roma Tre University in 2014. His experience with CRISPR/Cas9 began in the lab of Prof. Fabio Fornara (University of Milan), where he used CRISPR/Cas9 to target photoperiod genes of interest in rice and generate mutants that were not previously available. He recently moved to Rothamsted Research, UK, where he works as Genome Editing Specialist, transferring CRISPR/Cas9 technology to hexaploid bread wheat with the aim of improving the efficiency of genome editing in this crop. He is actively involved with AIRIcerca (International Association of Italian Scientists), disseminating and promoting scientific news.
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Plant samples in the genebank at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s Genetic Resources Unit, at the institution’s headquarters in Colombia. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.
It was too dry in the Australian region of Wimmera to produce crops last summer. This year, floods are set to wipe out yields again. Like a number of other regions across the planet, climate change is starting to be felt.
For Norton and many of her colleagues in agricultural genetics, the picture is increasingly clear: The variety of crops used today are not able to withstand the changing conditions and changes expected in the future.
Australia’s biodiversity may offer some help, according to discussions at the recent International Genebank Managers Annual General Meeting held in Horsham, Victoria. The gathering, which brings together 11 countries, focused on how to better conserve seeds, build databases to manage collections, boost capacity across the world and fill gaps in genebanks.
Researchers are particularly interested in crop wilds, “the ancestors of our domesticated crops,” Marie Haga, executive director of the The Crop Trust, explained to Devex. Australia is one of the richest sources of these seeds. “It’s like the wolf being the ancestor to our domesticated dogs. Crop wild relatives have traits that we have lost in the domestication process — they might need less water, might live in unfriendly conditions, may be resistant to pests and diseases.”
As climate change continues to batter agricultural yields, crop wild relatives could provide resilience. The seeds give breeders and farmers new options of plant varieties with traits to withstand a variety of conditions based on the harsh climates they are found — drought, fire, flood, poor soil, high salinity.
For Haga, crop wild relatives are a solution for food security. “The challenge is that many of the varieties widely used in modern agriculture are very vulnerable, because we have been breeding on the same line and they are adapted to very specific environment,” Haga said. Varieties that flourish today, she said, could wither as the climate fluctuates.
“Utilization of the natural diversity of crops is key to the future,” she said. “The climate is rapidly changing and we need to feed a growing population with more nutritious food. It is very hard to see how we can do this unless we go back to the building blocks of agriculture.”
Norton agreed: “Crop wild relatives have an amazing adaptability to changing conditions,” she told Devex. “When we talk about food security, we are talking about getting varieties in farm paddocks that have greater resilience to extreme conditions. It may not be the highest yield, but you are going to get something from this crop.”
Why have they been overlooked?
Crop wild relatives have so far been underutilized in the research and breeding process of crops.
“We have this fabulous natural diversity out there including 125,000 varieties of wheat and 200,000 varieties of rice.” Haga said. “We have not at all unlocked the potential of these crops.”
One reason is a dearth of research. “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives,” a 10-year project led by Haga to ensure long-term conservation of crop wild relatives, conducted a global survey of distribution and conservation and found that of 1,076 known wild relatives for 81 crops, more than 95 percent are insufficiently represented in genebanks and 29 percent are completely missing. They are missing purely due to the fact that they have yet to be collected.
“Genebank managers are generally open to include crop wild relatives in their collections.” Haga said. “It’s just quite simply that not enough work has been done in this area and the full potential is yet to be realized,” she said.
At the moment, seeds are being collected in 25 countries around the world as part of the crop wild relative project, but it is Australia that has been identified as one of the richest sources for crop wild relatives in the world. Because of the continent’s low population density and vast, undisturbed natural environment, a wide variety of species have been conserved, said Norton.
Australia holds significant diversity of wild relatives of rice, sorghum, pigeon pea, banana, sweet potato and eggplant currently missing from global collections, according to research by the Australian Seed Bank Partnership. Forty species have been prioritized for collection with high hopes that they will enable crops to withstand the harsh environmental conditions in which Australian species are found.
There are still many areas of Australia yet to be surveyed, and the full extent of its agricultural riches may yet to be tapped.
Australian researchers will play an important role in pre-breeding local species of wild relatives to improve their use in breeding programs. Crop wild relatives have historically been used in a variety of crops including synthetic wheat, but Australian native wild relatives have been harder to include in the breeding process.
“In the next 10 to 15 years it would be surprising if there is not something coming out that hasn’t got a component of Australian native wild relative in it,” Norton said who is currently involved in the collection of Australian crop wild relatives.
Collection of crop wild relatives is time sensitive
There is an urgency to collect crop wild relatives. Not only are wild species needed now to support changing environmental conditions affecting crops and farming, urbanization is putting crop wild relatives at risk of disappearing.
“We need to collect these sooner rather than later,” Norton told Devex. “Urbanization has a big impact on any native environment, let alone crop wild relatives. We know what species on our target list are more threatened than others — urbanization, flooding and fire are all risks to their security. We certainly have a priority list of species to collect and we need to make sure we target the ones that are under threat first.”
Once the varieties are conserved, breeders and farmers will need to be convinced to start using crop wild relatives. Many are already on board. “Most breeders understand these wild relatives have great potential,” Haga said.
Still, wild relatives can be difficult to work with and produce a lower yield. Haga expects there to be some reluctance, though limited.
“The understanding of the need is increasing and we feel very confident that this material will be used and some of them may be the game changer we are looking for,” she said.
The plans for crop wild relatives
Haga’s 10-year project on crop wild relatives is halfway complete. They are nearing the end of the collection phase and entering the pre-breeding process, before they are able to breed and deliver new species to farmers.
Australian support for the program includes an agreement for additional amount of $5 million. That comes on top of previous support of $21.2 million to the Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, which supports crop diversity globally and with a focus on the Indo-Pacific. Brazil, Chile, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the United States are among other supporters of the endowment fund that hopes to reach $850 million. In Australia, further resources are still required to fund and support better seed collection at home.
Globally, plans for crop wild relatives includes raising greater awareness of their potential and importance.
“We have a big job to do to create awareness of the important of crop diversity generally and crop wild relatives specifically,” Haga said. “We have been speaking for years about biodiversity in birds and fish and a range of other animals, but we have talked very little about conserving the diversity of crops. I will fight for all types of diversity, but especially plants.”
Agricultural production in temperate regions is highly productive with a significant proportion of global output originating from temperate (i.e. non-tropical) countries – 21% of global meat production and 20% of global cereal production [link opens PDF] originate from Europe alone. This proportion is very likely to increase in light of climate change.
Little fluffy clouds: temperate zones are well suited to agricultural production. Image credit: connect11/Thinkstock
TempAg is an international research collaboration network that was established to increase the impact of agricultural research and inform policy making in the world’s temperate regions. Its work does not solely focus on research, but also provides insights into current thinking through mapping existing scientific findings and outstanding knowledge gaps. In this way, the network aspires to become a platform for the alignment of national agricultural research and food partnership programs (such as Global Food Security) that will enable the development of more effective agricultural policies with a long-term vision.
Since its official inauguration in Paris in April 2015, TempAg has been leading a series of on-going workstreams around:
Boosting resilience of agricultural production systems at multiple scales and levels
Optimising land management for ecosystem services and food production
Improving sustainability of food productivity in the farms & enterprise level
After 18 months of existence, TempAg held a foresight workshop in London on 5–7 October to determine its future priorities.
Forty delegates took part in the workshop, coming from the 14 different countries in the temperate region, and from academia, policy, industry, and professionals at the science–policy interface. Through a series of presentations and interactive sessions, participants were invited to consider what the current and future challenges are in temperate agriculture, taking into account the needs of policy makers and industry in helping them to improve sustainable agriculture practices.
To tackle sustainability in temperate agriculture, there is a need to better manage risks and stresses (both biotic and abiotic), as well as finding ways to manage the restoration of natural capital, ecosystem services, and soils. During the workshop, it was noted that utilizing the diversity within different agricultural systems, via identifying the best practice and using the appropriate technological mix, may be a way forward in making production systems more sustainable.
Participants stressed the importance of taking a holistic view of the sustainability agenda within agriculture, without just focusing on environmental aspects. This means also taking into consideration socioeconomic factors, such as making food value chains (like turning milk into cheese), more equitable by identifying who gets the equity from the food commodities’ prices, or identifying what the optimum legal framework for sharing data might be.
The group also considered sustainable agriculture issues from a policy and industry needs angle. It was interesting to see that dealing with shocks (environmental, socioeconomic, and technological) featured highly in this discussion as well. It was suggested that increasing resilience to these shocks could be facilitated via the widespread diffusion of existing technologies. Engaging with farmers during this time would be necessary to identify technology uptake barriers.
Future-proofing agricultural resilience and enhancing the capacity to respond to shocks was deemed an urgent priority, so the development of a comprehensive map identifying the multiple shocks that could impact on farm resilience in temperate zones might be a future workstream for TempAg. Work in this area could help develop models to assess the flexibility within agricultural production systems.
What we eat is largely based on the types of food we produce. Therefore, healthy diets are intrinsically linked with our production systems. Another area of interest for TempAg could be to explore what the nutritional value of crops should be for better health, and what a nutritional diet will look like for sustainable temperate agriculture. Developing frameworks in this area could further inform future farming practices in temperate areas.
Since TempAg’s initiation, two major global policy agendas have been adopted by the international community: the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris COP21 agreement. Identifying what types of data and scientific evidence policy makers will need to achieve the agriculture-relevant targets was another area where TempAg could focus its activity moving forward.
Finally, delegates highlighted areas of work that could help to build more effective policies with a longer-term vision. These included developing economic tools for valuing natural capital and ecosystem services, as well as integrated assessment tools to monitor the performance and impact (environmental cost) of existing policies.
Evangelia is International Coordinator & Programme Manager for the Global Food Security program (GFS). Before joining GFS, Evangelia worked as an Innovation Manager for GFS partners BBSRC. She holds a PhD in plant development and genetics from the University of Oxford.
Could you give a brief introduction to Farming Futures and its mission?
Farming Futures is an independent, UK-based, inclusive agri-food supply chains alliance. Our mission is to work with researchers and industry to share knowledge, with the aim of improving the sustainability and productive efficiency of agriculture, all within the context of healthy, high-quality food.
The inauguration meeting of Farming Futures in 2009, then known as the Centre of Excellence for UK Farming. Left-Right: Tim Williams, Wayne Powell, Heather Jenkins, David Davies, Philip Morgan, Jamie Newbold.
How has plant and crop research been integrated into the recommendations presented by Farming Futures?
Plant science is the fundamental driver for agri-food development. We work closely with industry, as well as the AHDB and other farm advisory bodies across the UK to inform them about new developments. Accelerated, directed breeding programs using genomic and phenomic technologies are helping us to develop new varieties that offer more productive, more resilient, environmentally friendly plants – not just as food crops, but also for soil quality, nutrient retention, flood reduction, energy biomass, renewable chemistry, and a host of other desirable characteristics.
Historically, to paraphrase a fellow botanist, we have bred ‘needy, greedy plants’ that deplete resources and need lots of nasty chemicals to keep them growing. Now scientists are mining the genomes of crop ancestors to rediscover the genetic traits we unwittingly threw away on the route to increased yield.
What roles do research partners such as universities play?
We work together in a pre-competitive way to enable research, and to represent farming within agri-food policy – researchers from different organizations can collaborate thanks to our partners’ trusting relationships with each other. Collaborations in science are vital because the problems our global society faces are multi-factorial, non-linear and multi-disciplinary. They are far too complex for the typical university research team, working alone, to address efficiently. We need the equivalent of the CERN Large Hadron Collider project for agri-food.
In addition to helping researchers to bring in millions of pounds worth of applied research projects (at least £12 million, but it is notoriously difficult to find out what industry is funding), Farming Futures helped to establish the government-funded Agri-Food Tech Centres of Innovation for a total of around £90 million, bringing in industry to co-fund and support three of the four: the Agrimetrics Centre, Agri-Epi-Centre and Centre of Innovation Excellence in Livestock. In time, these Centres will catalyze a lot of collaborative research and will help stimulate innovation and technology uptake by industry.
…Economic returns on R&D are about 27 X investment but takes an average of 23 yrs for R&D innovation to be taken up by agriculture. 2/2
What climate change challenges will farmers face? Are there any specific challenges that Farming Futures can address?
Farming Futures and its network brings together scientists from different disciplines to discuss these problems and potential solutions. For instance, people from the UK’s national weather service (the Met Office) and some of the biggest food retailers and processors in the world come together at our conferences and workshops to think through scenarios and solutions. These solutions include breeding crops for increased resilience, not just peak yield. We are running out of fungicides that work efficiently, in the same way that we are running out of antibiotics; however, some very clever scientists have worked out some potential solutions that are more environmentally sound, so I am an optimist.
This problem solving is best done at the supply-chain level as it brings in a wider expertise. As I repeat often, a colleague once said to the board of one of the world’s biggest brewers, “No barley = no beer = no business”, inferring the question, “What are you doing to ensure that barley growers are going to be able to supply you in the future?”
Your website has an interesting study from 2011 highlighting six potential jobs of the future, including geoengineer, energy farming, web 3.0 farm host, pharmer, etc. How can students direct their skill development to meet the needs of the future?
There are many emerging jobs and skills, but each of these named jobs from 2011 are actually in practice now. The web 3.0 has now become web 4.0, which is the “internet of things”, with data collection from lots of devices including drones for precision agriculture and robots for weeding and picking crops.
The future of agri-food is in big data, including consumer behavior, weather forecasting, genomics, phenomics, and real-time analysis of the growth progress of plants and animals on-farm. We need more electronic and mechanical engineers with an understanding of biology, as well as more biologists who work within the agri-food industries and in government policy development.
The Farming Futures exhibition stand at the Livestock Event, NEC Birmingham, 2012.
What are you currently working on?
We are currently working with partners on a number of projects across the Agri-Food Tech Centres and trying to form more research collaborations. One of our big projects is The National Library for Agri-Food. I am currently working with web developers and experts from Jisc and the British Library to scope the requirements and to build a demonstration web site.
Finally, I would just like to add that we are open to collaborations across agri-food supply chains and will work to foster them, either openly or privately as appropriate.