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.

Lentils under the lens: Improving genetic diversity for sustainable food security

This week’s post comes to us from Crystal Chan, project manager of the Application of Genomic Innovation in the Lentil Economy project led by Dr. Kirstin Bett at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Saskatchewan.

 

Could you begin with a brief introduction to your research?

Our research focuses on the smart use of diverse genetic materials and wild relatives in the lentil (Lens culinaris) breeding program.

Canada has become the world’s largest producer and exporter of lentils in recent years. Lentils are an introduced species to the northern hemisphere and, until recently, our breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan involved just a handful of germplasms adapted to our climatic condition. With dedicated breeding efforts we have achieved noteworthy genetic gains in the past decade, but we are missing out on the vast genetic diversity available within the Lens genus. This is a major dilemma faced by all plant breeders: do we want consistency (sacrificing genetic diversity and reducing genetic gains over time) or diversity (sacrificing some important fixed traits and spending lots of time and resources in “backcrossing/rescue efforts”)?

 

In our current research, we use genomic tools to understand the genetic variability found in different lentil genotypes and the basis of what makes lentils grow well in different global environments (North America vs. Mediterranean countries vs. South Asian countries). We will then develop molecular breeding tools that breeders can use to improve the diversity and productivity of Canadian lentils while maintaining their adaptation to the northern temperate climate.

 

What first led you to this research topic?

Dr. Albert (Bert) Vandenberg, professor and lentil breeder at the University of Saskatchewan, noticed one of the wild lentil species was resistant to several diseases that devastate the cultivated lentil. After years of dedicated breeding effort, he was able to transfer the resistance traits to the cultivated lentil, but it took a lot of time and resources. We began looking into other beneficial traits and became fascinated with the domestication and adaptation aspects of lentil – after all lentil is one of the oldest cultivated crops, domesticated by man around 11,000 BC! With the rapid advance in genomic technology, we can start to better understand the biology and develop tools to harness these valuable genetic resources.

 

You have been involved in the development of tools that assist researchers to build databases of genomics and genetics data. Could you tell us more about projects such as Tripal?

Over the past six years, Lacey Sanderson (bioinformaticist in our group) has developed a database for our pulse research program at the University (Knowpulse, http://knowpulse.usask.ca/portal/). The database is specifically designed to present data that is relevant to breeders, as our group has a strong focus on variety development for the Canadian pulse crop industry. Knowpulse houses genotypic information from past and on-going lentil genomics projects, and includes tools for looking up genotypes as well as comparing the current genome assembly (currently v1.2) and other sequenced legume genomes. The tools are being developed in Tripal, an open-source toolkit that provides an interface between the data and a Drupal web content management system, in collaboration with colleagues at Washington State University.

 

At the moment we are developing new functionalities that will allow us to store and present germplasm information as well as phenotypic data. We are also working with our colleagues at Washington State University (under the “Tripal Gateway Project” funded by the National Science Foundation) to enhance interconnectivity between Knowpulse and other legume databases, such as the Legume Information Service (LIS) and Soybase, to facilitate comparative genomic studies.

How challenging are pulse genomes to assemble? How closely related are the various crops?

We had the fortune to lead the lentil genome sequencing initiative thanks to the support from producer groups and governments across the globe.  The lentil genome is really challenging to assemble! We see nice synteny between lentil and the model legume, medicago, however the lentil genome is much bigger. We see a significant increase in genome size between chickpea and beans versus lentil (and pea for that matter), yet we have evidence to show that genome duplication is not the cause of the size increase. There are a lot of very long repetitive elements sprinkled around the genome, which makes its sequencing and proper assembly very challenging. Not to mention understanding the role of these long repetitive elements in biological functions…

 

What insights into crop domestication have you gained from these genomes?

That’s what we are working on right now under the AGILE (“Application of Genomics to Innovation in the Lentil Economy”) project. Stay tuned!

 

Do you work with breeders to develop new cultivars? What sorts of traits are most important? 

Breeding is at the core of our work – both Kirstin and Bert are breeders (Kirstin has an active dry bean breeding program when she’s not busy with genomic research). All our research aims to feed information to the breeders so that they can make better crossing and selection decisions. Our work in herbicide tolerance has led to the development and implementation of a molecular marker to screen for herbicide resistance. With that marker we save time (skipping a crossing cycle) and forego the herbicide spraying test for all of our early materials.

Disease resistance and drought tolerance are also important for the growers. Visual quality (seed shape, size, color) are very important too as our customers are very picky as to what sort of lentils they like to buy/eat.

What does the future of legume/lentil agriculture hold?

Lentils have been a staple food in many countries for centuries and have been gaining popularity in North America in recent years as people are looking for plant-based protein sources. Lentils are high in fibre, protein, and complex carbohydrates, while low in fat and calories, and have a low glycemic index. They are suitable for vegetarian/vegan, gluten-free, diabetic, and heart-smart diets. Lentils also provide essential micronutrients such as iron, zinc and folates. Lentils are widely recognized as nutrient-dense food that could serve as part of the solution to combat global food and nutritional insecurity.

In modern agriculture, adding lentil or other leguminous crops in the crop rotation helps improve soil structure, soil quality, and biotic diversity, as well as enhancing soil fertility through their ability to fix nitrogen. Because pulse crops require little to no nitrogen fertilizer, they use half of the non-renewable energy inputs of other crops, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

2016 was marked by the United Nations as the International Year of Pulses, which was great as many people have become more aware of the benefits of pulse crops on the plate and in the field.

 

Follow us on twitter (@Wildlentils) for research updates!

 

All images are credited to Mr Derek Wright.

Sustainable, resilient, and nutritious food production with N8 AgriFood

This week we spoke with Dr Sally Howlett, a Knowledge Exchange Fellow with the N8 AgriFood Programme. (More on Sally at the end).

Sally, what is the N8 AgriFood Programme? When and why was it established?

The N8 Research Partnership is a collaboration of the eight most research-intensive universities in the North of England, namely Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, and York. It is a not-for-profit organization with the aim of bringing together research, industry and society in joint initiatives. These partners have a strong track record of working together on large-scale, collaborative research projects, one of which is the N8 AgriFood Programme. This £16M multi-disciplinary initiative is funded by the N8 partners and HEFCE (The Higher Education Funding Council for England), and was launched in 2015 to address three key global challenges in Food Security: sustainable food production, resilient food supply chains, and improved nutrition and consumer behavior.

How does plant science research fit into the N8 AgriFood Programme?

There is a strong motivation to ‘think interdisciplinary’ when it comes to developing projects for the N8 AgriFood Programme; therefore, whilst the most obvious home for plant science may be within the theme of sustainable food production, e.g. crop improvement, we see no boundaries when it comes to integrating fundamental research in plant science with applications in all three of our research themes. The testing of research ideas in the ‘real world’ is supported by the five University farms within the N8, which include arable and livestock holdings.

We are launching a Crop Innovation Pipeline to assist with the translation of research into practical applications, with the first event taking place in Newcastle on 2nd-3rd May 2017. It is an opportunity for scientists from academia and industry and representatives from the farming community to discuss their ideas for the implementation of plant biology research into on-farm crop improvement strategies.

How is the work split between the different institutions? How is such a large-scale initiative managed?

Whilst there are many areas of shared expertise between the eight partner institutions, each also has its own areas of specialism within the agri-food arena. The strength of the N8 AgriFood Programme is in working collaboratively to identify complementary strengths and grow those areas in a synergistic way. In this way, we are collectively able to tackle research projects that would not be possible for a single university alone. Pump-priming funds are available at a local and strategic level to support this kick-starting of new multi-institution projects. The Programme itself is led out of the University of York, and each University has its own N8 AgriFood Chair in complementary areas across the Programme. Having both inward- and outward-facing roles, they work with the Knowledge Exchange Fellows and the Programme Lead for each theme to ensure activities at their own institute are connected with what is going on in the wider N8.

What does your work as a Knowledge Exchange Fellow entail?

As a Knowledge Exchange Fellow within the N8 AgriFood Programme, my initial contact with people usually begins with the question ‘What on earth does a Knowledge Exchange Fellow do?’ – and it can be quite difficult to answer! Although some form of knowledge transfer activity has been a defined output of research projects for some time now, knowledge exchange as an ongoing two-way dialogue between researchers and external stakeholders to enable a co-creation process has been less common until recently. Hence dedicated Knowledge Exchange Fellows with academic training are a relatively ‘new’, but growing, phenomenon.

My role is best described as acting as a bridge between the research community and non-academics with a vested interest in developing or using the findings of the research process. It is key to have a good understanding of the perspectives of all parties involved and be able to translate this into the appropriate language for a particular sector. Each of the N8 institutes has appointed Knowledge Exchange Fellow(s), and we work as a cohort to keep abreast of the latest developments in our fields in order to support the development of relationships and innovative projects. In such a huge undertaking, the phrase ‘there is strength in numbers’ is certainly apposite!

 

How does N8 AgriFood interact with companies?

N8 Agrifood engages with UK-based companies in many ways, including individual face-to-face meetings, attending and hosting networking events, participating in national exhibitions, and holding business-facing conferences. We also run a series of Industry Innovation Forums on various topics throughout the year. These provide a unique opportunity to discuss key challenges, identify problems and deliver new insights into innovation for agri-food, matching practical and technical industry challenges with the best research capabilities of the N8 universities.

 

How does N8 Agrifood interact with farmers?

As the engine of the agri-food industry, the views and collective experience of the farming community are vitally important in shaping the direction and content of the projects we develop. Co-hosting events with programs such as the ADAS Yield Enhancement Network (YEN), which involves over 100 farms, is one way that we connect with the sector. We are also working with agricultural societies to promote what we are doing and engage directly with their networks of farming members, e.g. the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s Farmer Scientist Network. Last year we gave a series of seminars at the Great Yorkshire Show and are keen to encourage further collaboration with practicing farmers and growers across the UK.

 

Does N8 AgriFood collaborate with other research institutes around the world?

The N8 AgriFood Programme has strong international connections and actively welcomes working with international research institutes. Given the interconnectedness of our global food system, we feel that it is vital to link with overseas partners and that real impact can be had by bringing together top researchers from other countries to work together on problems. The value of N8 AgriFood as a one-stop shop is that we represent a large breadth and depth of expertise under a single umbrella, which greatly facilitates collaborating and finding suitable collaboration partners. Our pump-priming funds are a way for researchers to initiate new international partnerships, and we are also working to build links with global research organizations who have shared interests. For example, we recently visited Brazil and China to explore specific opportunities for collaboration and leveraging of research expertise and facilities, and are currently organizing a workshop in Argentina in March.

 

Where can readers get more information?

If you’d like to find out more, please visit our website: http://n8agrifood.ac.uk/, or consider attending one of our upcoming events:

 

All images are credited to the N8 Agrifood Programme.


Dr Sally Howlett is a Knowledge Exchange Fellow with the N8 AgriFood Programme. Her research background is in sustainable crop production and plant pest management.  After working on the control of invertebrate crop pests in New Zealand for several years, she returned to on-farm research in the UK and extended her focus to include the crops themselves taking a whole-systems view and comparing performance under conventional, organic and agroforestry management approaches. Sally’s role within N8 AgriFood provides a great opportunity to use her experience of agriculture and working with different actors across the sector to engage with external stakeholders, co-producing ideas and multi-disciplinary projects with applications throughout the agrifood chain.

Chickpea innovation: Revisiting the origins of crops to solve the challenges of modern agriculture

Doug Cook

Professor Doug Cook

This post was written by Professor Doug Cook (University of California, Davis), the Director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea. His current research spans both model and crop legume systems from a cellular to an ecosystem scale. 

 

The origins of modern human society derive, in large part, from the transition to an agrarian lifestyle that occurred in parallel at multiple locations around the world, including ~10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia*. Early agriculturalists wrought a revolution that would define human trajectory to the current day, domesticating wild plant and animal species into crops and livestock. The wild progenitors of chickpea, for example, were among a handful of Mesopotamian neo-crops, brought from hilly slopes into more fertile and cultivable plains and river valleys. In doing so, these farmers selected a small number of useful traits largely based on natural mutations that made wild forms amenable to agriculture, such as the consistency of flowering, upright growth, and seeds that remained attached to plants rather than dispersing.

Chickpea innovation

Doug Cook collecting chickpeas

Collecting wild chickpea plants, soil, and seed in southeastern Turkey. Image credit: Chickpea Innovation lab.

An unintended consequence of crop domestication was the loss of the vast majority of genetic diversity found in the wild populations. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea at the University of California, Davis (Chickpea Innovation Lab) documented a ~95% loss of genetic variation from wild species to modern elite varieties. This reduction in genetic variation constrains our ability to adapt the chickpea crop to the range of challenges facing modern agriculture.

The Chickpea Innovation Lab is re-awakening the untapped potential of wild chickpea and directing that potential to solve global problems in agriculture, especially in the developing world.  Combining longstanding practices in ecology with the remarkable power of genomics and sophisticated computational methods, we have spanned the gap from the wild systems to cultivated crops. Beginning with the analysis of ~2,000 wild genomes, the simple technology of genetic crosses applied at massive scale has delivered a large and representative suite of wild variation into agricultural germplasm. These traits are now being actively used for phenotyping and breeding in the U.S., India, Ethiopia and Turkey, and our team is currently prospecting for tolerance to drought, heat and cold; increased pest and disease resistance; improved seed nutritional content; nitrogen fixation; plant architecture; and yield.

Characterizing wild germplasm

Sultan Mohammed Yimer

Visiting Ethiopian student, Sultan Mohammed Yimer investigating disease resistance in wild chickpea. Image credit: Chickpea Innovation lab.

Along the way, the Chickpea Innovation Lab has deposited wild germplasm into the multi-lateral system, providing open access to a treasure trove of genetic variation. The Chickpea Innovation Lab derives support from numerous sponsors whose funds enable the collection, characterization, and utilization of this vital germplasm resource.

International research

A unique strength of the lab is that our diverse sponsorship permits activities ranging from fundamental scientific investigation to applied agricultural research and product development.

An additional objective of the Lab is to train and educate students in the developing world. Towards that end, 18 international and nine domestic students, postdoctoral scientists and visiting faculty have received training in disciplines ranging from computational biology, plant pathology and entomology, to agricultural microbiology, and molecular genetics and breeding.

Chickpea breeding

Harvesting progeny derived by crossing wild and cultivated chickpea plants in Davis, California. Image credit: Chickpea Innovation lab.

* Mesopotamia, literally “between the rivers”, is the region of modern day southeastern Turkey, bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

 

Mother grain genome: insights into quinoa

Sales of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) have exploded in the last decade, with prices more than tripling between 2008 and 2014. The popularity of this pseudocereal comes from its highly nutritious seeds, which resemble grains and contain a good balance of protein, vitamins, and minerals. The nourishing nature of quinoa meant it was prized by the Incas, who called it the “Mother grain”.

Quinoa

Quinoa is a popular ‘grain’, but it is more closely related to spinach and beetroot than cereals like wheat or barley. Image credit: Flickr user. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

Quinoa is native to the Andes of South America, where it thrives in a range of conditions from coastal regions to alpine regions of up to 4000 m above sea level. Its resilience and nutritious seeds means that quinoa has been identified as a key crop for enhancing food security, but there are currently very few breeding programs targeting this species.

The challenge of improving the efficiency and sustainability of quinoa production has so far been restricted by the lack of a reference genome. This week, a team of researchers led by Professor Mark Tester (King Abdullah University of Science & Technology; KAUST) addressed this issue, publishing a high-quality genome sequence for quinoa in Nature. They compared the genome with that of related species to characterize the evolution and domestication of the crop, and investigated the genetic diversity of economically important traits.

 

The evolution of quinoa

Tester and colleagues used an array of genomics techniques to assemble 1.39 Gb of the estimated 1.45-1.50 Gb full length of quinoa’s genome. Quinoa is a tetraploid, meaning it has four copies of each chromosome. The researchers shed light on the evolutionary history of this crop by sequencing descendants of the two diploid species (each containing two sets of chromosomes) that hybridized to generate quinoa; kañiwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule) and Swedish goosefoot (Chenopodium suecicum). Comparing these sequences to quinoa and other relatives, the team showed that the hybridization event likely occurred between 3.3 and 6.3 million years ago. A comparison with other closely related Chenopodium species also suggested that, contrary to previous predictions, quinoa may have been domesticated twice, both in highland and coastal environments.

Quinoa field

Quinoa field. Image credit: LID. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

Washing away quinoa’s bitter taste

Quinoa seeds are coated with soap-like chemicals called saponins, which have a bitter taste that deters herbivores. Saponins can disrupt the cell membranes of red blood cells, so they have to be removed before human consumption, but this process is costly, so quinoa breeders are always looking for varieties that produce lower levels of saponins.

Sweet (low-saponin) quinoa strains do occur naturally, but the genes that regulate this phenotype were previously unknown. Tester and colleagues investigated sweet and bitter quinoa strains and discovered that a single gene (TRITERPENE SAPONIN BIOSYNTHESIS ACTIVATING REGULATOR-LIKE 1 [TSARL1]) controls the amount of saponins produced in the seeds. The low-saponin quinoa strains contained mutations in TSARL1 that prevented it from functioning properly. This is a key target for the improvement of quinoa in the future, although farmers will have to find new ways to protect their crops from birds and other seed predators!

Quinoa flowers

Quinoa flowers. Image credit: Alan Cann. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

Quality quinoa

The high-quality reference genome for quinoa generated by Tester and colleagues is likely to be vital for allowing many exciting improvements in the future. Breeders hoping to improve the yield, ease of harvest, stress tolerance, and saponin content of quinoa can develop genetic markers to speed up breeding for these key traits, improving the productivity of quinoa varieties and enhancing future food security.

 


Read the paper in Nature: Jarvis et al., 2017. The genome of Chenopodium quinoa. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature21370

Thank you to Professor Mark Tester (KAUST) for providing information used in this post!

The future of phenotyping

This week’s post was written by Dr Kasra Sabermanesh, Rothamsted Research.

I am a post-doctoral research scientist within Rothamsted Research’s BBSRC-funded 20:20 Wheat® program, which aims to provide the knowledge base and tools to increase the UK wheat yield potential from 8.4 to 20 tons of wheat per hectare within the next 20 years. Field phenotyping is one component of this program and facilitates the non-destructive monitoring of field-grown crops. Traditional methods of field phenotyping require huge human effort, which consequently limits the accuracy, frequency, and number of different measurements that can be taken at one time. Fortunately, Rothamsted has an exciting solution to this problem.

The Field Scanalyzer

Kasra Sabermanesh

Dr Kasra Sabermanesh shows off the Field Scanalyzer. Image credit: Rothamsted Research

Our field phenotyping platform, the Field Scanalyzer (constructed by LemnaTec GmbH and being further developed by ourselves), supports a motorized measuring platform with multiple sensors that can be accurately positioned anywhere within a dedicated field. The sensor array comprises a high-definition RGB camera, two hyperspectral cameras, a thermal infrared camera, a system for imaging chlorophyll fluorescence and twin scanning lasers for 3D information capture. Together, these sensors generate a wealth of data about crop growth, architecture, performance, and health. The Field Scanalyzer operates autonomously and in high-throughput, meaning it can take a lot of non-destructive measurements without human supervision, throughout the crops lifecycle, with high-accuracy and reproducibility. (You can read more about the Field Scanalyzer in our recent paper: http://www.publish.csiro.au/FP/pdf/FP16163).

We are currently using the Field Scanalyzer to identify new characteristics of crops that relate to performance, as well as identifying new genetic diversity for existing traits. Outputs from either of these research components can be delivered to breeders. We are screening approximately 400 wheat varieties, but also imaging some oilseed rape and oat plants.

Rothamsted Research

The scanalyzer. Image credit: Rothamsted Research

The big data problem

The Field Scanalyzer at Rothamsted is a world first, so we initially had to develop all the necessary image acquisition protocols and image processing tools, in order to exploit its full capabilities. A number of image processing tools are available; however, they are not suitable for field-grown crops, as they were not developed for complex canopies consisting of hundreds of plants in highly dynamic ambient conditions. The platform can generate up to 100 TB data with a year’s continuous operation (using all of the sensors). That’s why I work with two other post-docs to develop robust computer vision tools to automate the way we extracting quantitative image datasets. We are also validating the accuracy of the values extracted from our images by comparing them with measurements obtained manually.

Approximately 1.5 years have passed since we first began operating the Field Scanalyzer, and we have now optimized all of our image acquisition protocols and have collected a full seasonal dataset. With the good quality images stored in our database, we have developed some robust tools to automatically extract the information about some key growth stages (ear emergence and flowering), as well as quantifying height and the number of some plant organs. We are still just scraping the surface though, and have a list of traits for which we want to develop computer vision tools, in order to automatically analyze them.

Take to the skies: Drones for data collection

Some of my colleagues work with drones (UAVs) to capture information about crop height, plant density (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), and canopy temperature from large-scale field trials containing 5000 plots. They also fly the UAVs over our Field Scanalyzer site, so we can compare data collected from the higher flying UAV with those collected from the Field Scanalyzer at close proximity. The way we see it, UAVs can image large fields in a very short time (15 min), so if we notice something interesting using the UAV at the large plot-scale, we can put the material under the Field Scanalyzer for high-resolution phenotyping. On the other hand, with the Field Scanalyzer, once we gain a better understanding of which trait/s we need to focus on, when we should be looking at them, and exactly which sensor/s are required to quantify the trait, we can deploy drones with the necessary sensors (once the sensors are portable enough) to collect this information at field-scale and at the appropriate time.

Drones at Rothamsted

Taking to the skies: Drones are used for large-scale phenotyping at Rothamsted. Credit: Rothamsted Research.

The future of phenotyping

I envision that the future of phenotyping technology will focus on reducing the cost and size of cameras/sensors, ultimately increasing their portability and accessibility. This will result in more sophisticated cameras being attached to UAVs (as many of sensors we currently use far out-weigh a UAV’s payload). Parallel to this, research efforts are focusing on developing image processing systems that efficiently extract quantitative information about the crops from acquired images. Together, phenotyping systems such as low-flying UAVs that generate easily interpreted data outputs could be developed, which may be more widely adopted by breeders and farmers to get a deeper insight into their crop’s health and performance.

Genome editing: an introduction to CRISPR/Cas9

Damiano Martignago

Dr Damiano Martignago, Rothamsted Research

This week’s blog post was written by Dr Damiano Martignago, a genome editing specialist at Rothamsted Research.

 

Genome editing technologies comprise a diverse set of molecular tools that allow the targeted modification of a DNA sequence within a genome. Unlike “traditional” breeding, genome editing does not rely on random DNA recombination; instead it allows the precise targeting of specific DNA sequences of interest. Genome editing approaches induce a double strand break (DSB) of the DNA molecule at specific sites, activating the cell’s DNA repair system. This process could be either error-prone, thus used by scientists to deactivate “undesired” genes, or error-free, enabling target DNA sequences to be “re-written” or the insertion of DNA fragments in a specific genomic position.

The most promising among the genome editing technologies, CRISPR/Cas9, was chosen as Science’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year. Cas9 is an enzyme able to target a specific position of a genome thanks to a small RNA molecule called guide RNA (gRNA). gRNAs are easy to design and can be delivered to cells along with the gene encoding Cas9, or as a pre-assembled Cas9-gRNA protein-RNA complex. Once inside the cell, Cas9 cuts the target DNA sequence homologous to the gRNAs, producing DSBs.

CRISPR/Cas9

The guide RNA (sgRNA) directs Cas9 to a specific region of the genome, where it induces a double-strand break in the DNA. On the left, the break is repaired by non-homologous-end joining, which can result in insertion/deletion (indel) mutations. On the right, the homologous-directed recombination pathway creates precise changes using a supplied template DNA. Credit: Ran et al. (2013). Nature Protocols.

 

Genome editing in crops

Together with the increased data availability on crop genomes, genome editing techniques such as CRISPR are allowing scientists to carry out ambitious research on crop plants directly, building on the knowledge obtained during decades of investigation in model plants.

The concept of CRISPR was first tested in crops by generating cultivars that are resistant to herbicides, as this is an easy trait to screen for and identify. One of the first genome-edited crops, a herbicide-resistant oilseed rape produced by Cibus, has already been grown and harvested in the USA in 2015.

Wheat powdery mildew

Researchers used CRISPR to engineer a wheat variety resistant to powdery mildew (shown here), a major disease of this crop. Image credit: NY State IPM Program. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

 

Using CRISPR, scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences produced a wheat variety resistant to powdery mildew, one of the major diseases in wheat. Similarly, another Chinese research group exploited CRISPR to produce a rice line with enhanced rice blast resistance that will help to reduce the amount of fungicides used in rice farming. CRISPR/Cas9 has also been already applied to maize, tomato, potato, orange, lettuce, soybean and other legumes.

Genome editing could also revolutionize the management of viral plant disease. The CRISPR/Cas9 system was originally discovered in bacteria, where it provided them with molecular immunity against viruses, but it can also be moved into plants. Scientists can transform plants to produce the Cas9 and gRNAs that target viral DNA, reducing virus accumulation; alternatively, they can suppress those plant genes that are hijacked by the virus to mediate its own diffusion in the plants. Since most plants are defenseless against viruses and there are no chemical controls available for plant viruses, the main method to stop the spread of these diseases is still the destruction of the infected plant. For the first time in history, scientists have an effective weapon to fight back against plant viruses.

Cassava brown streak disease

The cassava brown streak disease virus can destroy cassava crops, threatening the food security of the 300 million people who rely on this crop in Africa. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson (for more on this topic, read her blog here).

 

Genome editing will be particularly useful in the genetic improvement of many crops that are propagated mainly by vegetative reproduction, and so very difficult to improve by traditional breeding methods involving crossing (e.g. cassava, banana, grape, potato). For example, using TALENs, scientists from Cellectis edited a potato line to minimize the accumulation of reducing sugars that may be converted into acrylamide (a possible carcinogen) during cooking.

 

Concerns about off-targets

One of the hypothesized risks of using CRISPR/Cas9 is the potential targeting of undesired DNA regions, called off-targets. It is possible to limit the potential for off-targets by designing very specific gRNAs, and all of the work published so far either did not detect any off-targets or, if detected, they occurred at a very low frequency. The number of off-target mutations produced by CRISPR/Cas9 is therefore minimal, especially if compared with the widely accepted random mutagenesis of crops used in plant breeding since the 1950s.

 

GM or not-GM

Genome editing is interesting from a regulatory point of view too. After obtaining the desired heritable mutation using CRISPR/Cas9, it is possible to remove the CRISPR/Cas9 integrated vectors from the genome using simple genetic segregation, leaving no trace of the genome modification other than the mutation itself. This means that some countries (including the USA, Canada, and Argentina) consider the products of genome editing on a case-by-case basis, ruling that a crop is non-GM when it contains gene combinations that could have been obtained through crossing or random mutation. Many other countries are yet to issue an official statement on CRISPR, however.

Recently, scientists showed that is possible to edit the genome of plants without adding any foreign DNA and without the need for bacteria- or virus-mediated plant transformation. Instead, a pre-assembled Cas9-gRNA ribonucleoprotein (RNP) is delivered to plant cells in vitro, which can edit the desired region of the genome before being rapidly degraded by the plant endogenous proteases and nucleases. This non-GM approach can also reduce the potential of off-target editing, because of the minimal time that the RNP is present inside the cell before being degraded. RNP-based genome editing has been already applied to tobacco plants, rice, and lettuce, as well as very recently to maize.

In conclusion, genome editing techniques, and CRISPR/Cas9 in particular, offers scientists and plant breeders a flexible and relatively easy approach to accelerate breeding practices in a wide variety of crop species, providing another tool that we can use to improve food security in the future.
For more on CRISPR, check out this recent TED Talk from Ellen Jorgensen:


About the author

Dr Damiano Martignago is a plant molecular biologist who graduated from Padua University, Italy, with a degree in Food Biotechnology in 2009. He obtained his PhD in Biology at Roma Tre University in 2014. His experience with CRISPR/Cas9 began in the lab of Prof. Fabio Fornara (University of Milan), where he used CRISPR/Cas9 to target photoperiod genes of interest in rice and generate mutants that were not previously available. He recently moved to Rothamsted Research, UK, where he works as Genome Editing Specialist, transferring CRISPR/Cas9 technology to hexaploid bread wheat with the aim of improving the efficiency of genome editing in this crop. He is actively involved with AIRIcerca (International Association of Italian Scientists), disseminating and promoting scientific news.

Cassava brown streak: lessons from the field

This week’s post was written by Katie Tomlinson, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, UK, who spent three months as an intern at the National Crops Resource Research Institute in Uganda. She fills us in on the important research underway at the Institute, and how they communicate their important results to local farmers and benefit rural communities.  

Over the summer, I had a great time at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Uganda. I’m currently in the second year of my PhD at the University of Bristol, UK, where I’m researching how the cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) viruses are able to cause symptoms, replicate and move inside plants. I was lucky enough to be given a placement at NaCRRI as part of the South West Doctoral Training Partnership Professional Internship for PhD Students (PIPS) scheme, to experience the problem for myself, see the disease in the field, meet the farmers affected and investigate the possible solutions.

 

Cassava brown streak disease

Cassava brown streak disease symptoms on tubers. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

Cassava is a staple food crop for approximately 300 million people in Africa. It is resilient to seasonal drought, can be grown on poor soils and harvested when needed. However, cassava production is seriously threatened by CBSD, which causes yellow patches (chlorosis) to form on leaves and areas of tubers to die (necrosis), rot and become inedible.

Despite being identified in coastal Tanzania 80 years ago, CBSD has only been a serious problem for Uganda in the last 10 years, where it was the most important crop disease in 2014–2015. The disease has since spread across East Africa and threatens the food security of millions of people.

NaCRRI is a government institute, which carries out research to protect and improve the production of key crops, including cassava. The focus is on involving farmers in this process so that the best possible crop varieties and practices are available to them. Communication between researchers and farmers is therefore vital, and it was this that I wanted to assist with.

 

Scoring cassava brown streak disease

Scoring cassava plants for Cassava brown streak symptoms. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

When I arrived I was welcomed warmly into the root crop team by the team leader Dr Titus Alicai, who came up with a whole series of activities to give me a real insight into CBSD. I was invited to field sites across Uganda, where I got to see CBSD symptoms in the flesh! I helped to collect data for the 5CP project, which is screening different cassava varieties from five East and Southern African countries for CBSD and cassava mosaic disease (CMD) resistance. I helped to score plants for symptoms and was fascinated by the variability of disease severity in different varieties. The main insight I gained is that the situation is both complex and dynamic, with some plants appearing to be disease-free while others were heavily infected. There are also different viral strains found across different areas, and viral populations are also continually adapting. The symptoms also depend on environmental conditions, which are unpredictable.

I also got to see super-abundant whiteflies, which transmit viruses, and understand how their populations are affected by environmental conditions. These vectors are also complex; they are expanding into new areas and responding to changing environmental conditions.

It has been fascinating to learn how NaCRRI is tackling the CBSD problem through screening different varieties in the 5CP project, breeding new varieties in the NEXTGEN cassava project, providing clean planting material and developing GM cassava.

 

Tagging cassava plants

Tagging cassava plants free from Cassava brown streak disease for breeding. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

And there’s the human element…

In each of these projects, communication with local farmers is crucial. I’ve had the opportunity to meet farmers directly affected, some of whom have all but given up on growing cassava.

 

Challenging communications

Communicating has not been easy, as there are over 40 local languages. I had to adapt and learn from those around me. For example, in the UK we have a habit of emailing everything, whereas in Uganda I had to talk to people to hear about what was going on. This is all part of the experience and something I’ll definitely be brining back to the UK! I’ve had some funny moments too… during harvesting the Ugandans couldn’t believe how weak I was; I couldn’t even cut one cassava open!

 

Real world reflections

I’m going to treasure my experiences at NaCRRI. The insights into CBSD are already helping me to plan experiments, with more real-world applications. I can now see how all the different elements (plant–virus–vector–environment–human) interact, which is something you can’t learn from reading papers alone!

Working with the NaCRRI team has given me the desire and confidence to collaborate with an international team. I’ve formed some very strong connections and hope to have discussions about CBSD with them throughout my PhD and beyond. It’s really helped to strengthen collaborations between our lab work in Bristol and researchers working in the field on the disease frontline. This will help our research to be relevant to the current situation and what is happening in the field.

 

Some of the NaCRRI team

Saying goodbye to new friends: Dr. Titus Alicai (NaCRRI root crops team leader), Phillip Abidrabo (CBSD MSc student) and Dr. Esuma Williams (cassava breeder). Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.