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.

Break down barriers between seed banks and field study

By Marie Haga , Ann Tutwiler

Food biodiversity needs both systems, just like pandas need zoos and bamboo forests, say Marie Haga and Ann Tutwiler.

The efforts of many organisations mean that most of us understand the importance of conserving the biodiversity of wild animals and their habitats.  But few of us think about food in the same way we think about pandas, even though the issues are much the same.

The effective and efficient conservation of agricultural biodiversity — the biodiversity that’s important for providing the food we eat — is vital to meeting the global challenges of food and nutritional security for an expanding world population under the threat of climate change, and growing pressures on land and water.

And as with pandas and other wild animals, conservation of agricultural biodiversity can and must be done both in the laboratory and in the field.

From pandas to seeds

If you had a choice, would you rather see a panda in a zoo, or in the bamboo forests of southern China?

For most of us, seeing wild and endangered animals in their own habitat and watching how they behave, adapt and survive in their natural surroundings would be the preferred choice. But, the role of zoos in conserving wild and endangered animals is equally important.

Many zoos are home to breeding programmes. These can help re-introduce animals into wild areas from which they have disappeared, and maintain the genetic diversity of small populations of threatened species.  Zoos that are well-run carry out vital conservation research and can increase public support for conservation. And the only chance that most of us (and our kids) will have to see a panda is in a zoo.

Much in the same way, and for several decades now, dedicated researchers around the world have invested a great deal of effort in collecting and storing the seeds of different varieties of crops in genebanks, for what’s called ex situ conservation. Their collective work has created a precious global collection of over seven million seed, tissue, and other samples in many global and national genebanks.

“The problem is that systems of in situ and ex situ conservation have been largely disconnected for some time. Some conservationists even see them as antagonistic.

And while devotees of one side argue with the other, the diversity that underpins the food we eat is lost both in genebanks and in farmers’ fields.”

Marie Haga and Ann Tutwiler

At the same time, some concerns that apply to zoos — that they cannot maintain the evolutionary dynamics which allow ‘wild’ animals to evolve and adapt, for example — also apply to seed banks.

Researchers are increasingly recognising that in situ conservation is also important: maintaining crop and livestock diversity in farmers’ fields and farms, gardens, orchards, and the natural landscapes in which these are embedded.

A call for collaboration

Ex situ and in situ conservation each has their benefits.

It is relatively cheap to maintain crop diversity in a genebank, where it is safe from the vagaries of changing climates, and is readily accessible for research and breeding. But crop diversity stored in genebank is less accessible to farmers, and is not exposed to changing environments — which means it does not evolve and adapt.

On the other hand, crop diversity in farmers’ fields and under other in situ conditions, continues to evolve and adapt as a result of natural and human selections.  As it evolves and adapts, this genetic diversity contributes directly to the resilience and sustainability of agricultural systems, as well as to farmers’ livelihoods and to their empowerment. But there’s a downside: it is more difficult for breeders to use in their crop improvement programmes.

This shouldn’t be about choosing one over the other — the world needs both conservation systems, with good communication channels and knowledge transfer between them. This will help to properly conserve the genepools of crops and make them available for use into the future, for food and nutritional security.

The problem is that systems of in situ and ex situ conservation have been largely disconnected for some time. Some conservationists even see them as antagonistic.

And while devotees of one side argue with the other, the diversity that underpins the food we eat is lost both in genebanks and in farmers’ fields.

Crop diversity in farmer’s fields continues to decline in many parts of the world, often driven by market forces beyond the control of farmers’ themselves. Diversity is also lost from genebanks — a shortage of funding and staff means collections are often poorly maintained.

But if we stop looking at these two forms of conservation as antagonistic but rather as complementary, attention can be focused on what matters most: how best to safeguard this diversity for the future.

First steps

The First International Agrobiodiversity Conference is an opportunity to begin anew. That’s why practitioners in all these fields, from all over the world, both industrialized and developing, and from both the formal and informal sector, are coming together in New Delhi, India this week.

This congress gives conservation and agro-biodiversity experts and policy makers the opportunity to start mapping out a future that breaks down barriers between the two approaches, integrating them to ensure global food and nutritional security.

Most importantly, this means helping politicians and the public understand that conserving the diversity of our food is just as important as conserving the diversity of wild animals.

The congress is a first step in the right direction.

Marie Haga is executive director of The Crop Trust, and Ann Tutwiler is director general of Bioversity International. Haga can be contacted on Twitter at @CropTrust, and Tutwiler at @AnnTutwiler

 

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

Does Australia hold the key to food security?

This article is reposted from the Devex blog with kind permission from the author, Lisa Cornish.

CIAT research

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.

“It’s like this every year somewhere,” said Sally Norton, head of the Australian Grains Genebank, which stores diverse genetic material for plant breeding and research.

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.”


 

This article is reposted from the Devex blog with kind permission from the author, Lisa Cornish.

Farming Futures: integrating plant research and industry in the agri-food supply chain

This week we speak to Tim Williams, the Business Manager of Farming Futures and Research Fund Development Manager at Aberystwyth University, UK.

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.

 

What is the history of the organization?

Farming Futures started with an idea by Professor Wayne Powell in 2009 (then the director of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth) in discussion with Mark Price, who was the Managing Director of British supermarket chain Waitrose. It was launched in 2010, starting out as the Centre of Excellence for UK Farming (CEUKF). Waitrose seed-funded Farming Futures, and since then we have received support from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and Innovate UK.

 

Farming Futures

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.

 

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.

 

Farming Future exhibition

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.

 


In addition to IBERS, Farming Futures has four founding members (Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Harper Adams University (HAU), NIAB with East Malling Research (NIAB-EMR), and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)) and an influential Steering Board, chaired by Lord Curry of Kirkharle, who is very well known and respected in UK government and farming.

 

Creating stress resilient agricultural systems: Video interviews

The global population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, and to accommodate this, crop production must increase by 60% in the next 35 years. Furthermore, our global climate is rapidly changing, putting our cropping systems under more strain than ever before. Agriculture will need to adapt to accommodate more extreme weather events and changing conditions that may mean increased instance of drought, heatwaves or flooding. The Global Plant Council Stress Resilience initiative, was created to address these issues.

Back in October the Global Plant Council, in collaboration with the Society for Experimental Biology brought together experts from around the world at a Stress Resilience Forum to identify gaps in current research, and decide how best the plant science community can move forwards in terms of developing more resilient agricultural systems. We interviewed a number of researchers throughout the meeting, asking about their current work and priorities for the future.  Watch the best bits in the video below:

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.”

Oryza

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.

 

Genetic Diversity in our Food Systems

Gurdev Khush at IRRI

Gurdev Khush at IRRI. Photo credit: IRRI photos. Reproduced under a Creative Commons license 2.0

This week’s blog post has been written by agronomist and geneticist Gurdev Khush. Gurdev had a major role to play in the Green Revolution, and while working at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) developed more than 300 rice varieties, one of which (IR36) became the most widely planted variety of rice. The impact and significance of his work has been recognized by numerous awards including the World Food Prize in 1996, the Wolf Prize in Agriculture in 2000, the Golden Sickle Award in 2007, and in 1987 the Japan Prize.

Our civilization developed with the domestication of plants for food, fiber and shelter about 10,000 years ago. Since then we have made constant improvements to these domesticated plants based on genetic diversity. It is the conservation, evaluation and utilization of this genetic diversity that will be essential for further improvements in our food crops and world food security.

Gene banks conserve biodiversity

The first important step in conserving biodiversity was the establishment of a gene bank by Nikolai Vavilov at the Leningrad Seedbank in Russia during the 1920s. In subsequent years more gene banks were created in developed countries, and the Green Revolution provided major impetus for the establishment of gene banks in developing countries. The first gene bank for the conservation of rice germplasm was organized after IRRI was established in the Philippines in 1960. Other rice growing countries followed suit and now most of them have their own gene banks.

The IRRI gene bank has over 120,000 entries

IRRI medium term seed store

The medium term storage unit of the IRRI seed bank. Photo credit: IRRI photos. Reproduced under a Creative Commons license 2.0.

The IRRI gene bank has progressively grown from a few thousand entries in 1962 to over 120,000 entries today, including accessions of all the wild species. The germplasm is stored under two-temperature and humidity regimes. The medium term store keeps seeds at 4ºC and a relative humidity of 35% for 30–40 years, while in the longer term store, maintained at –10ºC and a relative humidity of 20%, seeds are expected to remain viable for 100 years.

IRRI accessions are evaluated for morphological traits, grain quality characteristics, disease and insect resistance, and for tolerance to abiotic stresses such as drought, floods, problem soils and adverse temperatures. These are all important characteristics in terms of breeding resilient and high yielding rice varieties for the future.

Selection of new rice varieties

Numerous landraces have been utilized for breeding high yielding rice varieties. The first high yielding variety, IR8, was developed from a cross between two landraces, one from Indonesia and the other from China. Another variety, IR64, is one of the most widely grown rice varieties, and has 19 landraces and one wild species in its ancestry.

IR64

Rice variety IR64, one of the most widely grown rice varieties. Photo credit: IRRI photos. Used under Creative Commons license 2.0.

Ensuring future food security

Gene banks have played an important role in world food security. However, as the population grows there are now even bigger challenges for meeting demand. Climate change and increased competition for land and water resources further magnify the problem. We need to breed climate resilient crop varieties with higher productivity, durable resistance to diseases and insects, and tolerance to abiotic stresses. Success will depend upon the continuous availability of genetic diversity; we must redouble our efforts to unlock the variability currently preserved in our gene banks.

Diversity Seek Initiative

Establishment of the Diversity Seek Initiative (DivSeek) and the proposed Digital Seed Bank, under the auspices of the Global Plant Council, is a welcome development.

The aim of DivSeek is to develop a unified, coordinated and cohesive information management platform to provide easy access to genotypic and phenotypic data on germplasm preserved in gene banks. It is an international effort to bring together gene bank curators, plant breeders and biological researchers. To begin with, the project will develop standards and generate genotypic, transcriptome and phenotypic information for cassava, rice and wheat diversity. This will form the foundation of the Digital Seed Bank, a novel type of database containing standardized and integrated molecular information on crop diversity. The information from this database will be publicly available, and will be of enormous scientific and practical value. It has the potential to significantly increase our understanding of the molecular basis of crop diversity, and its application in breeding programs.

If your organization is interested in joining DivSeek, information can be found here. Alternatively, sign up to the mailing list to keep up to date with the initiative.

Providing For Our Brave New World

The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) published a special issue in June entitled ‘Breeding plants to cope with future climate change’

The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) published a special issue in June entitled ‘Breeding plants to cope with future climate change

By Jonathan Ingram

The Journal of Experimental Botany (JXB) recently published a special issue entitled ‘Breeding plants to cope with future climate change’.

More often than not, climate change discussions are focused on debating the degree of change we are likely to experience, unpredictable weather scenarios, and politics. However, regardless of the hows and whys, it is now an undeniable fact that the climate will change in some way.

This JXB special issue focuses on the necessary and cutting edge research needed to breed plants that can cope under new conditions, which is essential for continued production of food and resources in the future.

The breadth of research required to address this problem is wide. The 12 reviews included in the issue cover aspects such as research planning and putting together integrated research programs, and more specific topics, such as the use of traditional landraces in breeding programs. Alongside these reviews, original research addresses some of the key questions using novel techniques and methodology. Critically, the research presented comes from a diversity of labs around the world, from European wheat fields to upland rice in Brazil. Taking a global view is essential in our adaptation to climate change.

Avoiding starvation

Why release this special issue now?

Quite simply, the consequences of an inadequate response to climate change are stark for the human population. In fact, as previously discussed on the Global Plant Council blog, changing climate and extreme weather events are already having an impact on food production. For example, drought in Australia (2007), Russia (2010) and South-East China (2013) all resulted in steep increases in food prices. However, a positive side effect of this was to put food security at the top of the global agenda.

A farm in China during drought. Reduced food production can cause steep rises in food prices leading to socio-economic problems.  Photo credit: Bert van Dijk used under Creative Commons License 2.0

A farm in China during drought. Reduced food production can cause steep rises in food prices leading to socio-economic problems.
Photo credit: Bert van Dijk used under Creative Commons License 2.0

Moving forwards, researchers and breeders alike will have to change their fundamental approach to developing novel varieties of crops. In the past, breeders have been highly succesful in increasing yields to feed a growing population. However, we now need to adapt to a rapidly changing and unpredictable environment.

Dr Bryan McKersie sums this up in his contribution to the special issue. He commented: “Current plant breeding methods use large populations and rigorous selection in field environments, but the future environment is different and does not exist yet. Lessons learned from the Green Revolution and development of genetically engineered crops suggest that a new interdisciplinary research plan is needed to achieve food security.”

Driving up yields

So which traits should we be studying to increase resilience to climate change in our crops?

A potentially important characteristic brought to the foreground by Dr Karine Chenu and colleagues (University of Queensland, Australia) is susceptibility to frost damage. Although seemingly counterintuitive at first, the changing climate could result in greater frost exposure at key phases of the crop lifecycle. Warmer temperatures, or clear and cool nights during a drought, would allow vulnerable tissue to emerge earlier in the spring (Gu et al., 2008; Zheng et al., 2012). A late frost could then be incredibly destructive to our agricultural systems, causing losses of up to 85% (Paulsen and Heyne, 1983; Boer et al., 1993).

As explained by Dr Chenu, “Finding frost tolerant lines would thus help to deal with frost damage but also with losses due to extreme heat and drought – as they could be avoided by earlier sowings”.

The authors conclude that a “national yield advantage of up to 20% could result from the breeding of frost tolerant lines if useful genetic variation can be found”. The impact of this for future agriculture is incredibly exciting.

This study is just one illustration of the importance of thinking outside the box and investigating a wide range of traits when looking to adapt crops to climate change.

You can find the full Breeding plants to cope with future climate change Special Issue of Journal of Experimental Botany here. Much of the research in the issue is freely available (open access).

Journal of Experimental Botany publishes an exciting mix of research, review and comment on fundamental questions of broad interest in plant science. Regular special issues highlight key areas.

References

Association of Applied Biologists. 2014. Breeding plants to cope with future climate change. Newsletter of the Association of Applied Biologists 81, Spring/Summer 2014.

Boer R, Campbell LC, Fletcher DJ. 1993. Characteristics of frost in a major wheat-growing region of Australia. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 44, 1731–1743.

Gu L, Hanson PJ, Post WM et al. 2008. The 2007 Eastern US spring freeze: increased cold damage in a warming world? BioScience 58, 253–262.

Paulsen GM, Heyne EG. 1983. Grain production of winter wheat after spring freeze injury. Agronomy Journal 75, 705–707.

Zheng BY, Chenu K, Dreccer MF, Chapman SC. 2012. Breeding for the future: what are the potential impacts of future frost and heat events on sowing and flowering time requirements for Australian bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) varieties? Global Change Biology 18, 2899–2914.

James Wong: Plant Geeks Will Save The World!

James Wong trained as a botanist at Kew Gardens in London, UK, before embarking on a wide and varied career encompassing broadcasting, writing and garden design. He demonstrates his passion for plants in every strand of his work, and is making a significant contribution towards raising the profile of horticulture and the plant sciences within the UK. He took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to Amelia at the Global Plant Council.

james wongJames qualified with a Masters in Ethnobotany; the study of how people use plants, in 2006. This branch of the plant sciences is very relevant to tackling pressing issues such as food security and conservation.

Plants have provided humanity with essentially every aspect of our sustenance and material culture for millennia. Being a fusion of anthropology and botany, ethnobotany is vital to understanding everything we are and everything we do.

 Humanity relies on an incredibly narrow range of plants to meet its needs, with just 3 crops providing up to 50% of our sustenance. This means civilization has pinned its future on just 0.00006% of the world’s edible plants!

With threats like climate change and a growing global population, it is simply not feasible to continue to marginalise 99.99994% of our crops. Learning about how to grow, prepare and eat those other plants is where the work of ethnobotanists is vital.

 This is just one example of how ethnobotany is essential in helping combat some of the biggest threats our species are facing in the next century. Plant geeks will indeed save the world.

To meet the needs of a growing population, many resources are currently focused on grow for flavourincreasing productivity of our large scale farming systems. However, in his most recent book, Grow for Flavour, James explores how we can increase the nutritional quality of home-grown produce. Could small-scale food production such as personal allotments or gardens have any role to play in our future food production systems?

In short, no. My tiny urban garden is just 6x6m, and there is no way that it is ever going to make a significant contribution to my calorie intake.

However (and this is a big however), even in this tiny space I can get access to a range of fruit and vegetables that could make an important contribution towards certain micronutrients in my diet. Many of these, including key phytonutrients, are not found in the limited range of crops grown commercially, at least in large quantities.

Green Zebra tomatoes are a good source of tomatidine.  Photo credit: J https://www.flickr.com/photos/florence_craye/2953736794/in/photolist-5v1F3s-6Pshmn-8 Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Green Zebra tomatoes are a good source of tomatidine.
Photo credit: J  Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

For example tomatidine, a chemical found in green tomatoes, may help improve muscle tone and reduce atrophy according to some studies. It is not really found in any supermarket produce, yet I can easily grow 10 kgs of tasty, tomatidine-rich fruit like ‘Green Zebra’ each summer. Popped in the freezer they could provide me with an important source of this phytonutrient year round that would otherwise be almost totally absent in my diet.

Home gardens can make significant financial sense too, removing cost as a barrier to nutrient availability.

The garden design studio, Amphibian Designs, was co-founded by James in 2008. I have always been fascinated by plants and I feel that designing with them helps me express that.” This fascination has led the studio to win four Royal Horticultural Society medals for its designs, including two gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. Gardening is perhaps something we might associate more with art and creativity than science. However, James finds that: creating spaces with plants and arranging them to express an idea allows me to better understand their botany.” Furthermore, having a scientific rather than arts background can be advantageous in design.

 I have no formal design training and find this actually allows me more creative freedom! I rarely know the design rules and conventions, so I don’t feel I need to slavishly devote my works to them. There is an awful lot of assumed knowledge and entrenched ideas in horticulture, much of which has no factual basis, and being an outsider means you get to circumvent all that.

Engaging the public with the plant sciences is becoming increasingly important yet the perception that plants are boring can be difficult to overcome. Could gardens and horticulture provide a way to approach this problem?

Absolutely. Humans instinctively find plants beautiful. Sadly, I do think UK horticulture has done a rather good job of suppressing this instinct in many people by holding up a singular, historical ideal as the dominant mode of what a ‘proper’ garden should be. Between the rustic woven willow and stately home symbolism, it can be very easy for many people (like me) to not associate themselves with gardening. Would food, fashion, music, art or film limit themselves to such as singular ideal? Of course not, and that explains their far more broad-based appeal.

 One of the most popular stands I saw at Chelsea Flower Show this year was for the European Space Agency, and represented how plants would be grown in space to feed astronauts and fuel interplanetary discovery. The look of wonder in faces of the kids (of all ages) as they wandered through spoke volumes. What an amazing way to engage kids with science.

So, we can’t leave without asking one final question: any tips for the budding gardeners amongst our readers?

Plants always grow and look best when planted to echo how they would naturally grow in the wild. Doing so means you will have less work, healthier plants and a perfectly matching aesthetic almost every time. Google image your favourite plants in their wild habitat and try your best to match them. The rest will take care of itself!

An interview with Ellen Bergfeld

EllenBergfeldThis week, New Media Fellow Amelia Frizell-Armitage has been talking to Ellen Bergfeld, CEO of the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies (ACSESS), a coalition of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) (both of which are Global Plant Council member organisations) and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). She spoke to us about the societies, her role as CEO, and her visions for the future.

What is the purpose of the ACSESS?

ACSESS is a nonprofit organization founded by the ASA, CSSA and SSSA to support the activities of member societies.

ACSESS has five primary goals. 1) Firstly, we help professional societies representing agronomic, crop, soil, and environmental sciences to collaborate and 2) advance the missions, visions, and activities of these societies. 3) We promote the value and image of agronomic, crop, soil and environmental resource professions, and 4) unify communication with scientists, educators, policy-makers, and the public to enhance impact. Finally, 5) we engage science-based knowledge on the challenges facing humanity.

How do the work and aims of the ACSESS coalition cross over with those of the Global Plant Council (GPC)?

The GPC’s goal to feed an ever-growing human population sustainably is of paramount interest and importance to all three of our member societies.

Additionally, all three societies advocate nationally and internationally for plant and crop sciences. They act as catalysts to generate plant-based solutions for the sustainable intensification of agriculture, whilst preserving biodiversity, protecting the environment, reducing world hunger, and improving human health and wellbeing.

In your opinion, what will be the biggest challenges over the next 50 years in terms of food production and agriculture?

Three things: climate change, degraded and decreased natural resources, and population growth.

What do you think our top priorities should be in terms of tackling these issues?

Adapting plants to climatic changes and developing crops that can be sustainably grown in the field is a top priority, and very broad in terms of the research required.

Another large gap I see is education and science literacy. By educating and empowering communities, particularly girls and women, regarding the carrying capacity of the planet, we can open up discussions and raise awareness of the need for sustainability in all aspects of our lives.

What are the key developments in agronomy required to ensure sustainable agriculture in the future?

If we continue to deplete our soil and water resources, this will have a dire impact on our ability to feed the population. We need to recognize this, and adapt our agricultural practices accordingly.

2015 is International Year of Soils. Can you sum up in one sentence why soils are so important?

 Soils Sustain Life!

What inspired you to leave academia and move into science policy, strategy and administration?

At the time I was looking to graduate, I would have had to do multiple postdocs to be competitive for an academic position. I enjoyed the teaching and working with animals, but not the lab work or grant writing.  I pursued the Congressional Science Fellowship to open new doors and took advantages of the opportunities that followed.

Day to day, what is the most rewarding part of your job as CEO?

I enjoy connecting our sciences, and scientists, to address the global challenges that we face.

Interacting with the best and brightest minds who are collectively addressing these challenges is incredibly inspiring and fulfilling.

Ellen Bergfeld received her BSc in Animal Science from Ohio State University, going on to study reproductive physiology, first at masters then PhD level, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  After graduating she was awarded the Federation of Animal Science Societies Congressional Science Fellowship. This Fellowship provides an opportunity for highly skilled scientists to spend a year working in congress as special assistants in legislative areas. Following the fellowship Ellen became Executive Director of the American Society of Animal Science. Ellen is now CEO of ACSESS.