Taking Care of Wildlings

By Hannes Dempewolf

We at the Global Crop Diversity Trust care about wildlings! No, not the people beyond The Wall, but the wild cousins of our domesticated crops. By collecting, conserving and using wild crop relatives, we hope to be able to adapt agriculture to climate change. This project is funded by the Government of Norway, in partnership with the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew in the UK, and many national and international research institutes around the world.

The first step of this project was to map and analyze the distribution patterns of hundreds of crop wild relatives. Next, we identified global priorities for collecting, and are now providing support to our national partners to collect these wild species and use them in pre-breeding efforts. An example of a crop we have already started pre-breeding is eggplant (aubergine). This crop, important in developing countries, has many wild relatives, which we are using to develop varieties that can better withstand abiotic stresses and variable environments.

More recently we have started a discussion with the crop science community on how best to share our data and information about these species, and genetic resources more generally. This discourse that was at the heart of what has now become the DivSeek Initiative, a Global Plant Council initiative that you can read more about in this GPC blog post by Gurdev Khush.

Why should you care?

Good question. I couldn’t possibly answer it better than Sandy Knapp, one of the Project’s recent reviewers, who speaks in the video below.

One of the great leaders in the field, Jack Harlan, also recognized their immense value: “When the crop you live by is threatened you will turn to any source of relief you can find. In most cases, it is the wild relatives that salvage the situation, and we can point very specifically to several examples in which genes from wild relatives stand between man and starvation or economic ruin.”


Wild rice, Oryza officinalis, is being used to adapt commercial rice cultivars to climate change. Photo credit: IRRI photos, used under Creative Commons License 2.0

Crop wild relatives have indeed been used for many decades to improve crops and their value is well recognized by breeders. This is increasingly true also for abiotic stress tolerances, particularly relevant if we care about adapting our agricultural systems to climate change. One such example is the use of a wild rice (Oryza officinalis) to change the flowering time of the rice cultivar Koshihikari (Oryza sativa) to avoid the hottest part of the day.

Share the care

Fostering the community of those who care about crop wild relatives is an important objective of the project. We make sure that all the germplasm collected by partners is accessible to the global community for research and breeding, within the framework of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the ‘Plant Treaty’). The project invests into building capacity into collecting: it’s not as simple a process as it may sound. The following shows the training in collection in Uganda:

We also put a heavy emphasis on technology transfer and the development of lasting partnerships in all of the pre-breeding projects we support.

The only way we can safeguard and reap the benefits of the genetic diversity of crop wild relatives over the long term is by supporting a vibrant, committed community.  We hope you agree, and encourage you to get in touch via [email protected].

To find out more about the Crop Trust and how you can take action to help conserve crop diversity for food security, please visit our webpage. For more information about the Crop Wild Relatives project, please visit www.cwrdiversity.org.



Approaches to biofortification

Biofortification is the improvement of the nutritional value of our crops through both traditional breeding and genetic engineering. Alongside DivSeek and Stress Resilience, biofortification is one of the Global Plant Council’s three main initiatives and will be central to addressing many of the challenges facing world health. However, biofortification doesn’t always involve changing our crops in some way. Often the nutrients we are lacking are present in pre-existing crops. We can biofortify our diets simply by identifying what’s missing and altering our life style accordingly.

Tackling undernourishment

The share

The share (%) of undernourished people per country. From: Max Roser (2015) -‘Hunger and Undernourishment’. Published online at www.OurWorldInData.org

More often that not we intuitively link biofortification with tackling undernourishment in the developing world, and indeed improvements in the diets of deprived communities would be of enormous benefit to global health.

To do this, a key challenge is to increase the nutrient content of staple food crops such as rice in Asia and maize in sub-Saharan Africa. We need to do this in a sustainable and affordable way; ensuring foods are accessible to those who need it. Alongside the fortification of staple crops we need to identify economical crop species that will grow in harsh environments and provide nutrients currently absent from the diet.

Addressing obesity

It is easy to forget that malnutrition is also a problem in developed countries. Worldwide, at least 2.8 million people per year die from obesity-related illnesses, and in 2011 more than 40 million children under the age of five were overweight. Obesity and related health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, place enormous strain on health services, and are partly a function of poor diet lacking in fibre and key phytonutrients. Addressing this is as important as tackling undernourishment, and many of the same principles apply.

Simple lifestyle changes, such as encouraging the consumption of more fruits and vegetables, are clearly a priority. In addition to this dietary change, if we are going to biofortify foods, there should be an emphasis on crops that are already widely consumed.

Purple tomatoes

Professor Cathie Martin

Professor Cathie Martin works at the John Innes Centre researching the link  between diet and health, and how crops could be fortified to improve our diets and global health.

Tomatoes, are one crop plant already eaten widely in the West, commonly found in fast and convenience foods. For this reason they became the focus of the work of Professor Cathie Martin at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. Cathie’s lab has developed a genetically modified tomato that is rich in anthocyanins, making them purple in colour. Anthocyanins are an important dietary component that can have numerous health benefits, including a potentially significant role in the prevention of diseases such as cancer and diabetes. They are the compounds that give some foods, such as blueberries or eggplant, their distinctive blue or purple colouring. Consuming higher quantities could be highly beneficial to health.

“We focused on anthocyanins because of their huge potential health benefits. Pre-clinical studies show that introducing our purple tomatoes into the diet could be an incredibly effective way to protect against diseases such as cancer. Our next steps will be to confirm these findings in human trials,” says Cathie.

However, naturally occurring tomato varieties containing anthocyanins already exist. Wouldn’t it be better to increase consumption of these rather than creating new ones?

“Indeed purple tomatoes do occur naturally. However, these have anthocyanins only in the skin, in quantities too small to make a significant impact on health. Our genetically modified tomatoes have anthocyanins in all tissues,” explains Cathie.

Since developing the purple tomatoes, Cathie, in collaboration with Professor Jonathan Jones, has set up Norfolk Plant Sciences, the UK’s first GM crop company. However, resistance and uncertainty in Europe surrounding GM technology means that progress has been slow.

“The company was founded in 2007 and we are currently working towards the approval of our purple tomato juice in the USA. Producing just the juice rather than the entire fruit means there are no seeds in the final product. This eliminates environmental challenges without compromising health benefits. If the juice proves successful in the USA we may then work towards approval in the UK and Europe.”

It’s not all about Genetic Modification

Of course if we want to make drastic changes to our foods, such as increase anthocyanins in our tomatoes or carotenoids in our rice, GM technology will be a necessity. However, we can go some way to biofortifying our diets without the use of GM.

Golden rice

Golden rice, shown on the left, is a biofortified crop that accumulates high quantities of provitamin A in the grain. This could help tackle Vitamin A Deficiency in developing countries, from which 500,000 children become blind every year, and nine million will die of malnutrition. Photo credit: IRRI photos used under Creative Commons 2.0

Primarily we really need to focus on changing diet and lifestyle. Promoting plants rich in the nutritional components we need is essential, in addition to encouraging traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet rich in fish, fruits and vegetables. However, changing people’s behavior and relationship with food is a huge challenge. Cathie cites the UK 5-A-Day governmental campaign as an example.

This campaign was aimed at encouraging people to eat five portions of fruit or vegetables a day. At the end of this 25-year campaign only 3% more of the UK population was getting their five a day.”

In addition to dietary change, we could biofortify our crops through traditional breeding. For example, one answer to increasing anthocyanins in the diet could be red wheat. Red wheat is rich in anthocyanins, and furthermore less susceptible to pre-harvest sprouting, which causes large crop losses every year for farmers. However, we have so far resisted selecting for this trait in wheat breeding programs as it is not considered esthetically pleasing. To improve our diets we may need to change our expectations of what we want our plates to look like.

Next steps

Plant scientists alone cannot tackle biofortification of our diets! Cathie believes the key to a healthier future is interdisciplinary research:

“Everyone needs to come together: nutritionists, epidemiologists, plant breeders, and plant scientists. However, with such a diverse group of people it is hard to reach agreement on the next steps, and equally as difficult to secure funding for research projects. We really need to promote collaboration and interaction between all groups in order to move forwards.”

Women in Plant Science, Part II

Tuesday 13th October was Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in honor of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer.

To highlight the achievements of women in STEM we’ve spoken to female plant scientists around the world about their careers and experiences. Read on for Part II of the series (for Part I, click here):


Professor Kalunde Sibuga

Professor Kalunde Sibuga

Professor Kalunde Sibuga

Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania

What are you working on?

I have always been interested in working with farmers who have limited resources and coming up with production technologies that can help reduce their workload (particularly for women) and dependence on purchased inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and other pesticides. These interests led to a research career focusing on weed management and agronomy of legumes, vegetable crops and cereals.


Have you ever faced any specific challenges as a female scientist in Tanzania?

Not particularly, because policies in Tanzania encourage girls to go to school and do whatever they are able to do. Women in science in my country are not targeted for discrimination, but until recently, certain sections of science such as engineering were considered a male domain. The government aims for gender equality and funds various projects to encourage girls to take science subjects, which have assisted in increasing enrolment of girls in universities.


What are your hopes and goals for the future?

I have always believed that whatever we do, our aim should be to increase productivity, reduce drudgery and increase household income. This can only be achieved if governments, particularly African governments, would take a serious look at mechanization, timely delivery of inputs, marketing, and value addition aspects. Our work in agronomy is of no great benefit if the other components are not properly and appropriately addressed.

Weed Science and Management are not as well staffed as other branches of crop protection such as entomology and plant pathology. My goals for the future are therefore to continue to train and encourage young scientists to engage in weed research.



Associate Professor Siobhan Brady

Associate Professor Siobhan Brady

Associate Professor Siobhan Brady

University of California, Davis, USA

Could you give a brief overview of your research into root development?

My lab explores the development of root cell types, and the gene regulatory mechanisms and networks that are responsible for producing them. We are also interested in how different species and stresses have different networks in order to adapt to different environments. We love to utilize genome-scale data and systems approaches to understand how these systems are organized.


Have you faced any specific challenges as a woman in science?

Yes. Finding the right time to have a baby is one example. I ended up having my first child five months into my position as a PI and the experience was one of the most challenging in my life. I was trying to find my feet being a new mum at the same time as being a new lab leader, writing grants and teaching. I even felt “guilty” (purely self-imposed) for starting my position by having a baby and felt that I had so much to prove by being able to get this position at a time when getting faculty positions was incredibly challenging. I went back to work full time after six weeks. Nursing, working, and travelling was very hard, but I made it. I had the support of my partner and of an incredibly wonderful lab and colleagues. Looking back in fact, I wish I’d opened up to them a little more.

I now have two beautiful boys. I have had to cut some of my work responsibilities (for instance, picking and choosing which weekly meetings are really the most important to attend). It has changed our lives, but learning to be flexible (not always easy for me!) and finding the unique advantages in each challenge that faces us has been a tremendous learning experience.


What would you say is the general experience of women in science in the US?

So much better than it once was. When I started in science I knew of very few female faculty members with children. Now there are many more incredible mentors who have families, are very successful and maintain a good work-life balance.

That being said, given the current funding situation in the US and the general economy there are fewer and fewer faculty jobs available. Many graduate students and postdocs have presented their concerns to me that raising a family and having a successful career are inherently incompatible in this era – that is, that you will always be so busy that something will fail.

It is hard to figure out when to have children. If you have a grant, there is no allowance for your graduate students or postdocs to take leave, but you are mandated to take some leave (as you should be). This is a real challenge, both for PIs and for students/postdocs, as there is really only a limited amount of time to get a project done and to have a mother stay with an infant. I don’t know of a good way to handle this other than to always have open communication with people in your group and to let them know (if a PI) that you support them in their life goals, no matter what they are, while encouraging them to be the best they can be.


What are your goals for the future?

Raise happy, well-adjusted children, continue to train amazing scientists, learn different fields of research and ask new and creative biological questions. And of course, publish well and get funded sufficiently so that our work can make a difference in science and the world in general!



Thank you to both Professor Kalunde Sibuga and Associate Professor Siobhan Brady for taking the time to discuss their experiences with us.

Please leave a comment below and describe any challenges or opportunities you have observed for women in science in your country!


Women in Plant Science, Part I

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in honor of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer.

To highlight the achievements of women in STEM we’ve spoken to female plant scientists around the world about their careers and experiences. Read on for the first of two posts:

Associate Prof Lum Fontem

Associate Professor Lum Fontem


Associate Professor Lum A. Fontem

University of Buea, Cameroon, and Women Representative of the African Crop Science Society.


Could you give a brief overview of your research?

I have always had the desire to carry out research that is oriented towards solving the problems of resource-poor farmers, which led me towards my areas of interest; weed science, agronomy, management of post-harvest losses and phytoremediation. I work with many crops, including cereals, legumes, vegetables, roots and tubers.

The major output of my work has been the adoption of technologies that have led to  an improvement of livelihoods, food security and increased household incomes.


Have you faced any challenges as a woman in science?

Occasionally I face the challenges that women go through because of their gender, but I have always stood my ground. My parents encouraged me to go to school and provided for my needs, and I won awards, all of which helped me to sail through smoothly.


What would you say is the general experience of women in science in Cameroon?

In Cameroon, the policy of gender equality has received a strong impetus from government and women are encouraged in the area of science, however there are still domains that women still have to break through.


What are your goals for the future?

I hope to train more weed scientists that can respond to the multifarious challenges of food production.



Professor Cornelia Spetea Wiklund

Professor Cornelia Spetea Wiklund

Professor Cornelia Spetea Wiklund

University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and Council Member of the Scandinavian Plant Physiology Society.


What is the subject of your research?

My research focuses on the solute transport network from the thylakoid membrane of Arabidopsis thaliana. We also study the impact of mycorrhiza symbiosis on photosynthesis in the model legume Medicago truncatula.


How has your career progressed?

My PhD at the University of Szeged, Hungary, and postdoc at Stockholm University, Sweden, focused on the proteolytic mechanisms in thylakoid membranes during light stress. I moved to Linköping University, Sweden, where I got funding from the Swedish Research Council to build my own research group working on my current areas of interest. I have been a Professor of Plant Cell Physiology at the University of Gothenburg for the past 4.5 years.


Have you dealt with any specific challenges as a woman in science?

Of course. I gave birth to two children in my first years as group leader. The major challenge was how to manage my group and raise the children at the same time, even though my husband took over quite a lot of the family responsibilities. On one hand, I have become a very good ‘manager’ of my time, but on the other, I have missed a lot of my children’s development. Another challenge was to learn to understand how my male colleagues think and undertake management in science.


How does Sweden help women in science to succeed?

Sweden, as other Scandinavian countries, is known for a generous parental leave system, which allows the father to be at home for at least 60 out of 480 days. Day care is heavily subsidized by the state and accepts children over a year old.  These advantages allow many female scientists in Sweden to have children during their PhD or later on in their career. However, the ‘price’ may be that the young female group leaders with small children at home experience delays in their career development as compared with male colleagues of similar age.

A survey at my institution in Gothenburg revealed additional causes for delayed career success, such as poor networking and visibility of young females in various scientific forums. Remarkably, according to the same survey, there is not much difference in career development between senior male and female scientists.


What do you hope to achieve in the future?

I will continue my research on the regulation of photosynthesis since I find it fascinating and because I believe this can bring solutions to many of the problems with crop productivity within the context of increasing human population and depleted resources. I also aim to spend more time with my children at least in the coming five years, before they leave home to continue their studies.


Thank you to both Associate Professor Lum Fontem and Professor Cornelia Spetea Wiklund for taking the time to discuss their experiences with us.

Please leave a comment below and describe any challenges or opportunities you have observed for women in science in your country!