How diverse is your food?

Dr Colin Khoury

Dr Colin Khoury

This post was written by Dr Colin Khoury. Colin studies diversity in the crops people grow and eat worldwide, and the implications of change in this diversity on human health and environmental sustainability. He is particularly interested in the wild relatives of crops. Colin is a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia, and at the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado.


New Changing Global Diet website explores changes in diets over the past 50 years in countries around the world.

One of the central concepts that unifies those concerned with biodiversity is the understanding that this diversity is being lost, piece by piece, to a greater or lesser degree, globally.

The same goes for the biodiversity of what we eat. Scientists and activists have worried about the loss of crops and their many traditional varieties for at least a hundred years, since botanist N. I. Vavilov traveled the world in search of plants useful for cultivation in his Russian homeland. He noticed that diversity was disappearing in the cradles of agriculture – places where crops had been cultivated continuously for thousands of years. The alarm sounded even louder 50 years ago, during the Green Revolution, when farmers in some of the most diverse regions of the world largely replaced their many locally adapted wheat, rice and other grain varieties with fewer, more uniform, higher yielding professionally bred varieties.


Map of crop diversity

Cradles of agriculture: origins and primary regions of diversity of agricultural crops

(Click to magnify)


This is ironic, since modern productive crop varieties are bred by wisely mixing and matching diverse genetic resources. The disappearance of old varieties thus reduces the options available to plant breeders, including those working to produce more nutritious or resilient crops.

Being a food biodiversity scientist, I grew up (in the professional sense) with the loss of crop diversity looming over my head, providing both a raison d’être, and an urgency to my efforts. Somewhere along the line, I became interested in understanding its magnitude. That is, counting how many crops and how many varieties have been lost.

That’s where it started to become complicated, and also more interesting. Because, when I went looking for signs of the loss of specific crops, I couldn’t find any. Instead, I found evidence of massive global changes in our food diversity that left me worried, but at the same time hopeful.

A bit of background. Most of the numbers seen in the news on how much crop diversity has been lost go back to a handful of reports and books that reference a few studies: for example, the changing number of vegetable varieties for sale in the U.S. over time. The results are estimations for a few crops at local to national levels, but they somehow have been inflated to generalized statements about the global state of crop diversity, the most common of which being some variation of “75% of diversity in crops has been lost”.

Market stand of fruit and vegetables

Diverse produce, but is it all local? Image credit:  Karyn Christner. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

Putting true numbers on diversity loss turns out to be a complicated and contested business, with no shortage of strong opinions. One big part of the problem is that there aren’t many good ways to count the diversity that existed before it disappeared. Researchers have done some work to assess the changes in diversity in crop varieties of Green Revolution cereals, and to some degree on the genetic diversity within those varieties. The results indicate that, although diversity on farms decreased when farmers first replaced traditional varieties with modern types, the more recent trends are not so simple to decipher.

It was particularly surprising to me that very little work had been done to understand the changes in what is probably the simplest level to measure: the diversity of crop species in the human diet, that is, how successful is maize versus rice versus potato versus quinoa and so on. I realized that data on the contribution of crops to national food supplies were available for almost all countries worldwide via FAOSTAT, with information for every year since 1961. Perhaps these were the data that could show when a crop fell off the world map.

Fast forward through a couple of years of investigation. To my great surprise, I found that not a single crop was lost over the past 50 years! There was no evidence for extinction. What was going on?


Maize is a key crop in many countries. Image credit: Erfan A. Setiawan. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

It turns out that my failure to see any loss of crops was due to the lack of sufficient resolution in the FAO data. Only 52 meaningful crop species-specific commodities are measured and a number of these are general groupings such as “cereals, other”. Because of this lack of specificity, the data couldn’t comprehensively assess the crops that have been most vulnerable to changes in the global food system over the past 50 years. In FAO data, these plants are either thrown into the general categories or they aren’t measured at all, especially if they are produced only on a small scale, for local markets or in home gardens. This is, in itself, sign enough that they may be imperiled. We need better statistics about what people eat (and grow) around the world. But, enough is known to be confident that many locally relevant crops are in decline.

Over the past 50 years, almost all countries’ diets actually became more diverse, not less, for the crops that FAO statistics do report on. We found that traditional diets that were primarily based on singular staples a half century ago, for instance rice in Southeast Asia, had diversified over time to include other staples such as wheat and potatoes. The same was true for maize-based diets in Latin America, sorghum- and millet-based diets in sub-Saharan Africa, and so on.

Not that there weren’t plant winners and losers. Wheat, rice, and maize, the most dominant crops worldwide 50 years ago, became more important globally. Other crops emerged as widespread staples, particularly oilcrops such as soybean, palm oil, sunflower, and rapeseed oil. And, as the winners came to take more precedence in food supplies around the world, alternative staples such as sorghum, millets, rye, cassava, sweet potato, and yam were marginalized. They haven’t disappeared (at least not yet), but they have become less important to what is eaten every day.

As countries’ food supplies became more diverse in the winner crops reported by FAO, and the relative abundance of these crops within diets became more even, food supplies worldwide became much more similar, with an average decrease in variation between diets in different countries of 68.8% over the past 50 years!

This is why, although we could see no absolute loss in crops consumed over the past 50 years, I am concerned. For even in the relatively small list of crops reported in the FAO data, many of these foods are becoming marginalized, day by day, bite by bite. That doesn’t seem like a good thing for the long-term resilience of our agricultural areas, nor for human health, although it’s important to remember that such changes are the collateral damage resulting from the creation of highly productive mega-crop farming systems, which have increased the affordability of these foods worldwide, leading to less stunting and other effects of undernutrition worldwide. On the other hand, global dependence on a few select crops equates to expansive monocultures, with more lives riding on the outcome of the game of cat and mouse between pestilence and uniform varieties grown over large areas. Moreover, cheaply available macronutrients have contributed to the negative effects of the nutrition transition, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

So why then am I hopeful? Because the data, and some literature, and my own direct experience also indicate that diets in recent years, in some countries, are beginning to move in different directions, reducing the excessive use of animal products and other energy-dense and environmentally expensive foods, and becoming more diverse, particularly with regard to fruits and vegetables, and even healthy grains. What better evidence than quinoa, which was relatively unknown outside the Andes a couple of decades ago, and is now cultivated in 100 countries and consumed in even more?

When we published our findings of increasing homogeneity in global food supplies, we hadn’t yet found a good way to make the underlying national-level data readily visible to interested readers. This is why I’m tremendously excited to announce the publication of our new Changing Global Diet website, which provides interactive visuals for 152 countries over 50 years of change. We that hope you will enjoy your own investigations of dietary change over time. Perhaps you can tell us where you think the changing global diet is headed.

Check out The Changing Global Diet website

Read the published article: Khoury CK, Bjorkman AD, Dempewolf H, Ramírez-Villegas J, Guarino L, Jarvis A, Rieseberg LH and Struik PC (2014). Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security. PNAS 111(11): 4001-4006.

Healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world

By David R. Montgomery, University of Washington


Image 20170329 8557 1q1xe1z
Planting a diverse blend of crops and cover crops, and not tilling, helps promote soil health. Catherine Ulitsky, USDA/Flickr, CC BY


One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals. The Conversation

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.


A Ugandan farmer transports bananas to market. Most food consumed in the developing world is grown on small family farms.Svetlana Edmeades/IFPRI/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND


Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.

Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient

Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”

And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.

Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world

We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.

The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found “evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields.” In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can’t feed the world depend as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.


Cover crops planted on wheat fields in The Dalles, Oregon.
Garrett Duyck, NRCS/Flickr, CC BY-ND


Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

Building healthy soil

Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.

So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.

We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.

Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.

David R. Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Roots of a second green revolution

This week we spoke to Professor Jonathan Lynch, Penn State University, whose research on root traits has deepened our understanding of how plants adapt to drought and low soil fertility.



Could you begin by giving us a brief introduction to your research?

We are trying to understand how plants adapt to drought and low soil fertility. This is important because all plants in terrestrial ecosystems experience suboptimal water and nutrient availability, so in rich nations we maintain crop yields with irrigation and fertilizer, which is not sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, climate change is further degrading soil fertility and increasing plant stress. This topic is therefore both a central question in plant evolution and a key challenge for our civilization. We need to develop better ways to sustain so many people on this planet, and a big part of that will be developing more resilient, efficient crop plants.


Drought is devastating for crops

Drought and low soil fertility are devastating for crops. Image credit: CIAT. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.


What got you interested in this field, and how has your career developed over time?

When I was 9 years old I became aware of a famine in Africa related to crop failure and resolved to do something about it. I studied soils and plant nutrition as an undergraduate, and in graduate school worked on plant adaptation to low phosphorus and salinity stress, moving to a research position at the CIAT headquarters in Colombia. Later I moved to Penn State, where I have maintained this focus, working to understand the stress tolerance of staple crops, and collaborating with crop breeders in the USA, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.


Your recent publications feature a variety of different crop plants. Could you talk about how you select a species to study?

We work with species that are important for food security, that grow in our field environments, and that I think are cool. We have devoted most of our efforts to the common bean – globally the most important food legume – and maize, which is the most important global crop. These species are often grown together in Africa and Latin America, and part of our work has been geared to understanding how maize/bean and maize/bean/squash polycultures perform under stress. These are fascinating, beautiful plants with huge cultural importance in human history. They are also supported by talented, cooperative research communities. One nice feature of working with food security crops is that their research communities share common goals of achieving impact to improve human welfare.


Common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris)

The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is an important staple in many parts of the world. Image credit: Ervins Strauhmanis. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.


Many researchers use Arabidopsis thaliana for plant research, but are crops better suited for root research than the delicate roots of Arabidopsis? Are crop plants more or less difficult to work with in your research than Arabidopsis?

The best research system is entirely a function of your goals and questions. We have worked with Arabidopsis for some questions. Since we work with processes at multiple scales, including crop stands, whole organisms, organs, tissues, and cells, it has been useful to work with large plants such as maize, which are large enough to easily measure and to work with in the field. The most interesting stress adaptations for crop breeding are those that differ among genotypes of the same species, and at that level of organization there is a lot of biology that is specific to that species, that cannot readily be generalized from model organisms with very different life strategies. There has been considerable attention to model genomes and much less attention to model phenomes.


You have developed methodologies for the high-throughput phenotyping of crop plants. What does this technique involve and what challenges did you have to overcome to succeed?

We have developed multiple phenotyping approaches – too many to summarize readily here. Our overall approach is simply to develop a tool that helps us achieve our goals. For example, we have developed tools to quantify the root architecture of thousands of plants in the field, to measure anatomical phenotypes of thousands of samples from field-grown roots, to help us determine which root phenotypes might affect soil resource capture, etc. Working with geneticists and breeders, we are constantly asked to measure something meaningful on thousands of plants in a field, in many fields, every season. ARPA-E (the US Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy) has recently funded us to develop phenotyping tools for root depth in the field, but this is the first time we have been funded to develop phenotyping tools – generally we just come up with things to help us do our work, which fortunately have been useful for other researchers as well.


Could you talk about some of the computational models you have developed for investigating plant growth and development?

The biological interactions between plants and their environment are so complex, we need computational (in silico) tools to help us evaluate them. Increasingly, in silico tools can integrate information across multiple scales, from gene expression to crop stands. These tools also allow us to evaluate things that are difficult to measure, such as phenotypes that do not yet exist, or future climates. In silico biology will be an essential tool in 21st Century biology, which will have access to huge amounts of data at multiple scales that can be used to try to understand incredibly complex systems, such as the human brain or roots interacting with living soil. Our main in silico tool is SimRoot, developed over the past 25 years to understand how root phenotypes affect soil resource capture.

Check out a SimRoot model below:


You have been working on breeding plants that have improved yield in soils with low fertility. What have you achieved in this work?

In collaboration with crop breeders and colleagues in various nations we have developed improved common bean lines with better yield under drought and low soil fertility that are being deployed in Africa and Latin America, improved soybean lines with better yield in soils with low phosphorus being deployed in Africa and Asia, and are now working with maize breeders in Africa to develop lines with better yield under drought and low nitrogen stress. Many crop breeders are using our methods for root phenotyping to target root phenotypes in their selection regimes in multiple crops.


What piece of advice do you have for early career researchers?

You are at the forefront of an unprecedented challenge we face as a species – how to sustain 10 billion people in a degrading environment. Plant biologists are an essential part of the effort to reshape how we live on this planet. Do not doubt the importance of your efforts. Do not lose sight of the very real human impact of your scientific choices. Do not be deterred by the gamesmanship and ‘primate politics’ of science. You can make a difference. We need you.

Creole maize reveals adaptation secrets

By Lucina Melesio

[MEXICO CITY] An international team of scientists identified a hundred genes that influence adaptation to the latitude, altitude, growing season and flowering time of nearly 4,500 native maize varieties in Mexico and in almost all Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Creole — or native — varieties of maize are derived from improvements made over thousands of years by local farmers, and contain genes that help them adapt to different environments.

“We are now using this analysis to find other genes that are of vital importance to breeders, such as those resistant to extreme heat, frost or drought — environmental conditions associated with climate change and that could affect maize production.”

Sarah Hearne, CIMMYT

“Latin American breeders will be able to use these results to identify native varieties that could contribute to improved adaptation”, Edward Buckler, a Cornell University researcher and co-author of the study published in Nature Genetics (February 6), told SciDev.Net.

The information on the genetic markers described in the study will be available online, said Sarah Hearne, a researcher at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author of the study. “Meanwhile, any breeder can contact us to request information”, she said.

“We are now using this analysis to find other genes that are of vital importance to breeders, such as those resistant to extreme heat, frost or drought — environmental conditions associated with climate change and that could affect maize production”, Hearne said.

Maize ears from CIMMYT’s collection, showing a wide variety of colors and shapes. CIMMYT’s germplasm bank contains about 28,000 unique samples of cultivated maize and its wild relatives, teosinte and Tripsacum. These include about 26,000 samples of farmer landraces—traditional, locally-adapted varieties that are rich in diversity. The bank both conserves this diversity and makes it available as a resource for breeding.
Photo credit: Xochiquetzal Fonseca/CIMMYT.

Studying native maize varieties is extremely difficult because of their genetic variation. Although domesticated, they are wilder than commercial varieties.

For this study, the researchers cultivated hybrid creole varieties in various environments in Latin America and identified regions of the genome that control growth rates. They looked into where the varieties came from and what genetic features contributed to their growth in that environment.

 In comments to SciDev.Net, James Holland, a researcher at North Carolina State University, Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, a researcher at the University of California Davis, and Rodomiro Ortiz, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences — who did not participate in the study — commended the magnitude of the study and the original method developed by the researchers to access the rich set of genetic information about native maize varieties.

Hearne added that the research team has initiated a “pre-breeding” programme with a small group of breeders in Mexico. As part of that programme, CIMMYT delivers to breeders materials from its germplasm bank of Creole maize; it also provides molecular information the breeders can use to generate new varieties.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America and Carribean edition.

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.

Global Plant Council stress resilience commentaries published in Food and Energy Security

In October 2015, researchers from around the world came together in Iguassu Falls, Brazil, for the Stress Resilience Symposium, organized by the Global Plant Council and the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB), to discuss the current research efforts in developing plants resistant to the changing climate. (See our blog by GPC’s Lisa Martin for more on this meeting!)

Building on the success of the meeting, the Global Plant Council team and attendees compiled a set of papers to provide a powerful call to action for stress resilience scientists around the world to come together to tackle some of the biggest challenges we will face in the future. These four papers were published in the Open Access journal Food and Energy Security alongside an editorial about the Global Plant Council.

In the editorial, the Global Plant Council team (Lisa Martin, Sarah Jose, and Ruth Bastow) introduce readers to the Global Plant Council mission, and describe the Stress Resilience initiative, the meeting, and introduce the papers that came from it.

In the first of the commentaries, Matthew Gilliham (University of Adelaide), Scott Chapman (CSIRO), Lisa Martin, Sarah Jose, and Ruth Bastow discuss ‘The case for evidence-based policy to support stress-resilient cropping systems‘, commenting on the important relationships between research and policy and how each must influence the other.

Global Plant Council President Bill Davies (Lancaster University) and CIMMYT‘s Jean-Marcel Ribaut outline the ways in which research can be translated into locally adapted agricultural best practices in their article, ‘Stress resilience in crop plants: strategic thinking to address local food production problems‘.

In the next paper, ‘Harnessing diversity from ecosystems to crops to genes‘, Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston (University of Warwick), Zoe Wilson (University of Nottingham), François Tardieu (INRA), Jim Beynon (University of Warwick), and Katherine Denby (University of York) describe the challenges that must be overcome to promote effective and efficient international research collaboration to develop new solutions and stress resilience plants to enhance food security in the future.

University of Queensland‘s Andrew Borrell and CIMMYT‘s Matthew Reynolds discuss how best to bring together researchers from different disciplines, highlighting great examples of this in their paper, ‘Integrating islands of knowledge for greater synergy and efficiency in crop research‘.

In all of these papers, the authors suggest practical short- and long-term action steps and highlight ways in which the Global Plant Council could help to bring researchers together to coordinate these changes most effectively.

Read the papers in Food and Energy Security here.

Early Career Researcher travel bursary to attend the State of the World’s Plants Symposium 2017

The Society for Experimental Biology have very kindly offered to sponsor one early career researcher (PhD student or postdoctoral researcher within five years of obtaining PhD) to attend the State of the World’s Plants Symposium 2017 at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK). The recipient will receive up to £1000 to support their meeting registration, travel, and accommodation costs to attend the meeting, which will be held at the Jodrell Laboratory, RBG Kew, on the 25th and 26th May 2017.

The bursary is offered to promote the international collaboration goals of the Society for Experimental Biology and the Global Plant Council, and applications from all countries are welcomed.

In return for this generous bursary, the student will be expected to write a 500-1000 word blog post about the meeting for the Global Plant Council blog.

In order to be eligible for the State of the World’s Plants bursary, you must be:

  • An early career researcher (PhD student or postdoctoral researcher with less than five years of experience after completing PhD) in plant science.
  • Available and able to attend the State of the World’s Plants Symposium 2017.
  • A member of the Society for Experimental Biology or willing to join if you are awarded the bursary.


To apply for this bursary, please send an email containing the following information to Sarah Jose ([email protected]) by 9 am (BST) on Tuesday 18th April 2017:

  • Name
  • Institutional address
  • Research topic
  • Why would attending this meeting help your future career? (250 word limit)
  • What else would you gain from attending? (250 word limit)
  • Do you intend to present a poster at the meeting?
  • A signed statement from your PhD supervisor/Head of Department confirming that you are a student or an early career researcher (please scan this and send as an attachment).

Synthetic biology in chloroplasts

Dr Anil Day, University of Manchester

Dr Anil Day, University of Manchester

This week we spoke to Dr. Anil Day, a synthetic biologist at the University of Manchester who has developed an impressive array of tools and techniques to transform chloroplast genomes.


Could you begin by giving our readers a brief overview of synthetic biology?

Synthetic biology involves the application of engineering principles to biological systems. One approach to understanding a biological system is to break it down into smaller parts, which can be used to design new properties. These redesigned pieces can be reassembled into a new system, tested experimentally, and refined in an iterative process. Synthetic biology projects that are underway in our lab include designing plastids such as chloroplasts with new metabolic functions, and in the longer term the design and assembly of synthetic chloroplast genomes.


Anil Day examines transformed plants

Dr. Anil Day examines a cabinet of transformed plants. Credit: Dr. Anil Day.

Why do you use chloroplasts for synthetic biology systems?

Chloroplasts have a relatively small genome, coding for about 100 genes. Importantly, exogenous (foreign) genes coding for new functions can be precisely introduced into the chloroplast genome. All of the plastids within a plant contain the same genome so, once established, the user-designed reprogrammed plastids will be present throughout the plant. Chloroplasts can also produce very high levels of protein; researchers have achieved expression levels where over 70% of the total soluble protein in the leaves is the engineered protein. Expression in tomato fruit is also possible.

Multiple genes can be introduced into chloroplasts and expressed coordinately, allowing the metabolic engineering of more complex processes. The upper size limit for insertions is not known but is likely to be above the 50,000 nucleotide insertion achieved to date. Furthermore, chloroplasts and other plastids are important metabolic hubs and contain a wide variety of chemical substrates useful for metabolic engineering.

Plastids in plants

Plants have several types of plastids, including green photosynthetic chloroplasts, pigment-containing chromoplasts, and starch-containing amyloplasts. Credit: Dr. Anil Day.


Could you describe the current state of our ability to engineer chloroplasts?

Chloroplast engineering is routine in many labs around the globe. Although there are multiple chloroplasts in every cell, the process of converting all the chloroplasts to a single population of engineered genomes is not an issue. Most researchers use the tobacco plant because it is easily transformed, but other crops are amenable to transformation, including oilseed rape, soybean, tomato, and potato (cereals such as rice and wheat are more problematic). There has been progress with developing the inducible expression of exogenous genes in chloroplasts too.


What challenges/differences do you face when transforming chloroplast genomes when compared to the nuclear genome?

Typical genetic modification of the DNA in the nucleus is performed by introducing exogenous genes in T-DNA. T-DNA is transferred to the plant using the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which is an efficient process, but the T-DNA integrates ‘randomly’ at many sites within chromosomes and different lines can have variable expression levels due to positional effects and gene silencing.

A. tumefaciens-mediated gene delivery systems do not work for chloroplast transformation. Most chloroplast transformation labs introduce genes into plastids by blasting cells with gold or tungsten particles coated with DNA. Because chloroplast genomes are present in multiple copies per cell, the process of converting all resident chloroplasts to the transgenic genome requires a continued period of selection. This means that the isolation of chloroplast transformants can take slightly longer than nuclear transformation. In our lab, we speed up this process by using restoration of photosynthesis to select chloroplasts with exogenous genes. Once plants with a uniform population of transgenic plastid genomes have been isolated, the transgenes are stable and inherited through the maternal line.

For the novice, I would say nuclear transformation using A. tumefaciens is easier to accomplish than chloroplast transformation.


Edited chloroplasts

A tobacco plant containing leaf areas with edited (pale green) and normal (darker green) chloroplasts. Credit: Dr. Anil Day.

Last year you reported that chloroplasts degrade in mature sperm cells just prior to fertilization. Could you elaborate on how this might be utilized in future crop breeding?

Chloroplasts are inherited from the female parent in wheat. This is useful because it restricts the pollen-mediated spread of chloroplast-localized transgenes into the environment. Previously, no-one had studied the mechanism of maternal chloroplast inheritance in wheat using modern cell biology tools. With our collaborators Lucia PrimavesiHuixia Wu, and Huw Jones at Rothamsted Research, we developed an efficient method to observe small non-green plastids in wheat pollen in real time. We found that the plastids were destroyed during the maturation of sperm cells, which explained the absence of paternal plastids in the offspring.

This discovery has applications in crop breeding. Anther culture is a powerful technique where new homozygous plants can be produced by doubling the chromosome numbers of haploid plants regenerated from pollen. This technique has been challenging in cereals, as chloroplast degradation in pollen leads to a high percentage of albino plants (in some cases 100% albinos). Understanding how to prevent the destruction of plastids in pollen sperm cells will improve this technique in cereals, which could speed up crop breeding in the future.


Selection of transformed plants

Transformed plantlets are selected by their ability to survive on a herbicide-containing agar plate, and can then be grown up into mature plants. Credit: Dr. Anil Day.

 What sorts of processes have you successfully transformed into chloroplasts, and what kinds of results have you achieved?

We have expressed a variety of exogenous genes in chloroplasts, from those conferring resistance to herbicides to vaccine epitopes and pharmaceutical proteins:

  • Plants expressing the bar gene in chloroplasts were resistant to the herbicide glufosinate (also known as phosphinothricin).
  • A chloroplast-expressed viral epitope was used to identify samples of human blood infected with the hepatitis C virus.
  • Human transforming growth factor 3 (hTGFβ3), a potential wound healing drug, accumulated to high concentrations in chloroplasts, and could be processed to a pure active form resembling clinical grade hTGFβ3.
  • In collaboration with Ray Dixon, Cheng Qi, and Mandy Dowson-Day at the John Innes Centre, we investigated the feasibility of introducing nitrogen-fixing genes into chloroplasts. This work was initiated in a unicellular green alga with the bacterial nifH gene.


What is the cutting edge of chloroplast transformation research?

Chloroplast genes are important for plant growth and development but they are difficult to improve by conventional breeding methods. We recently developed a method to edit plastid genomes, which allows beneficial single point mutations to be introduced into chloroplast genes. This is important because the resulting plants have an identical genome to the original cultivar apart the single base substitution, potentially leading to a new class of biotech crop.

How to publish your work in New Phytologist

Reproduced with permission

In two short videos, New Phytologist Editor-in-Chief Prof Alistair Hetherington provides a step by step guide for early career researchers, intending to publish their work in New Phytologist.

“One of my top tips would be: get the author list decided very early on.”


Alistair talks through the process of working out whether research is within the scope of the journal, deciding the author list, and submitting a presubmission enquiry.

“Remember, the Editor will use the covering letter to help him or her decide whether or not to send your work out for review. You need to put your work in context, and describe how your findings are novel, and exciting.”


In part two, Alistair explains the submission process, including what should be included in the covering letter. He then describes the peer review process at New Phytologist and what to do after you’ve received a decision on your manuscript.

Read the transcript of both videos on the New Phytologist blog. The audio from the videos is available to download under a Creative Commons licence from the New Phytologist Soundcloud page. You are welcome to redistribute this for teaching purposes.

Reproduced with permission.