Student-driven plant breeding symposium addresses global challenges in the 21st century

This week we spoke to Francisco Gomez and Ammani Kyanam, graduate students in the Soil and Crop Science Department at Texas A&M University, USA. They were part of the organizing committee for the recent Texas A&M Plant Breeding Symposium, a successful meeting run entirely by students at the University.

Francisco Gomez and Ammani Kyanam

Francisco Gomez and Ammani Kyanam, part of the student organizing committee of the Plant Breeding Symposium

Could you begin with a brief introduction to the Plant Breeding Symposium held at Texas A&M in February?

Texas A&M University is one of the largest academic and public plant breeding institutions worldwide, which trains breeders in a variety of programs. Every year, students at the University organize the Texas A&M Plant Breeding Symposium, which is part of the DuPont Pioneer series of symposia. The symposium provides a platform for graduate students to bridge the interaction between the public and private sectors and engage in conversations about the grand challenges facing humanity that could be addressed by plant breeding. It’s also a great chance to network with faculty, students, and industry representatives.

 

Could you tell us more about this theme and how the different sessions were chosen?

We wanted the theme of the meeting to mirror the university’s goal of thinking big to pinpoint solutions to modern global challenges using plant science and breeding. Every member of the committee had the opportunity propose a theme, which were then put to a vote.

Nikolai Vavilov

Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist and geneticist, was the inspiration for this year’s symposium. Image credit: Public Domain.

This year’s theme, “The Vavilov Method: Utilizing Genetic Diversity”, celebrated the life and career of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who identified the centers of origin of cultivated plants. We invited plant scientists and breeders who are applying Vavilov’s ideas through the conservation, collection, and effective utilization of genetic diversity in modern crop breeding programs. This year we also developed a workshop entitled “Where does a breeder go to find genetic diversity?”, which allowed students and faculty to talk about the importance of utilizing genetic diversity in crop improvement and to learn new tools to help them incorporate genetic diversity in breeding programs.

 

Could you tell us more about how you developed the workshop?

Our aim for the workshop was to engage students and faculty on where we can find genetic diversity, how we can use it, and to include a panel discussion on the challenges and the future of genetic diversity in modern plant breeding programs. As a new value-added event, the workshop was challenging to set up because it required a different set of skills to the rest of the meeting. Once we had an idea of what we wanted, we set up an initial meeting with our speakers where we brainstormed ideas. After several online meetings and e-mails with Professor Paul Gepts (UC Davis), Dr. Colin Khoury (Agricultural Research Service, USDA; check out his recent GPC blog here!), and Professor Susan McCouch (Cornell University), we finalized the structure of the workshop, the layout of the sessions, and the objectives for the speakers. We also had a representative from DivSeek, Dr. Ruth Bastow, on the discussion panel, who contributed to our discussion on future tools for accessing diversity in the future.

 

How has the symposium grown since the inaugural meeting in 2015?

Every year we want to make the symposium a memorable event, and we want other students and faculty to really get something out of it. We are learning more and more about the students and faculty with these events, particularly in terms of which topics are the most exciting or interesting. The symposium has also grown into a two-day event, with this year’s inclusion of the workshop.

 

Did you have to overcome any challenges in the organization of the event?

One of our biggest challenges was to secure funding for the event, which is free to attend. To add further value to our event, we wanted to have additional components such as a student research competition and/or workshop, which meant we had to aggressively fundraise from multiple sources. This involved writing a lot of grant proposals both to plant sciences departments across Texas A&M University, as well as to other sources of external funding.

We are grateful to DuPont Pioneer for providing a large amount of the funding. In 2017, we also received sponsorship from the Texas Institute for Genomic Science and Society, Departments of Soil and Crop Sciences, Molecular and Environmental Plant Science, Horticulture, Plant Pathology, and Biology, Texas Grain Sorghum Association, Texas Peanut Producers Board, and Cotton Incorporated. Our beverage sponsor was Pepsi and Kind Snacks was our snack sponsor.

 

What advice would you give a graduate student trying to organize a similar event?

Plan early and set small goals! Communication is key for a large team to organize such an event. We encourage groups to use Slack or some sort of team work interface. It really helped us to be in constant communication with each other during the months leading up to the symposium.

 

Could you tell us a little about your own research?

My research (Francisco Gomez) is focused on identifying genomic regions (known as quantitative trait loci; QTLs) associated with mechanical traits that are known to be associated with stem lodging, a major agronomic problem that reduces yields worldwide. My colleague and co-chair, Ammani Kyanam, received her Masters in Plant Breeding in while working in the cotton cytogenetics program in our department. Her research focused on developing genomic tools to facilitate the development of Chromosome Segment Substitution Lines for upland cotton. She is currently mapping QTLs for aphid resistance in sorghum for her Ph.D. You can learn more about the research of our individual committee members at http://plantbreedingsymposium.com/committee/.

 

How can our readers connect with you?

We have a strong social media presence via Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, where we post event videos, photos and periodical updates. Check them out below!

Facebook: TAMUPBsymposium

Instagram: @pbsymposium

Twitter: @pbsymposium

YouTube: Texas A&M Plant Breeding Symposium

Website: plantbreedingsymposium.com

Email: mailto:[email protected]

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.

GPC AGM: Another exciting year of innovative collaborations

The content of the Global Plant Council’s Annual General Meeting was summed up by outgoing Chair Professor Wilhelm Gruissem’s opening remarks: “We have made a lot of progress and accomplished many things, but we still have much work to do”. With many exciting initiatives in the works, the GPC AGM looked back at a year of success and forward to even greater things to come.

GPC AGM 2015 attendees

The GPC AGM 2015 attendees

The meeting, held in Iguassu Falls, Brazil, brought together representatives from many of the 29 member organizations to discuss the progress made on the GPC initiatives in the past year.

                         

plantae                                                         

Plantae.org

Plantae promo!

Plantae promo!

The GPC has been working with the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) to create Plantae.org, a digital ecosystem for the plant science community. It will serve as a resource hub and networking platform, with news, information, funding and job opportunities, educational materials and outreach resources all in one place. For more information, read GPC Outreach and Communications Manager Lisa Martin’s post about Plantae here.

If you would like to register to become a beta tester for Plantae and give valuable feedback on the way the system works, sign up at www.plantae.org. Plantae is due for full release in 2016.

 

Educational resources

We also teamed up with the Gatsby Charitable Foundation’s Plant Science Tool for Research-Engaged Education (TREE), an online teaching tool providing everyone with inspirational educational resources from the research community. Thanks to our international members, the GPC has begun to translate these resources into other languages to make them more accessible to lecturers, teachers and students around the world.

A big thank you to GPC intern Maura Di Martino, Professor Edith Talensik (Argentinean Society of Plant Physiology/Sociedad Argentina de Fisiología Vegetal, SAFV) and Marília de Campos (Portuguese Society of Plant Physiology/Sociedade Portuguesa de Fisiologia Vegetal, SPFV), who translated four free-to-access TREE research lectures into Italian, two into Spanish and two into Portuguese.

We’ve also collaborated with the popular Teaching Tools in Plant Biology, run by the ASPB, to translate materials into Portuguese with the help of Drs Nelson Saibo, Ana Paula Santos and Professor Cândido Pinto Ricardo of the SPFV.

 

DivSeek

DivSeekRGBDiversity Seek (DivSeek) is a community-driven, science-based initiative that aims to unlock the potential of crop diversity stored in seed banks around the world. It is jointly facilitated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Secretariat of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (FAO), the CGIAR consortium, and the GPC.

During 2015, over 50 partners came together to officially launch DivSeek and bring together large-scale genotyping and phenotyping projects, computational and data standards projects. Our aim is to establish DivSeek as a common umbrella to connect and promote interactions between these activities and establish common state-of-the-art techniques for data collection, integration and sharing. This will improve the efficiency of each project by eliminating redundancy and increasing the availability of data to researchers around the world. Read more about the project here.

In connection with the DivSeek initiative, the GPC is conducting a landscaping survey of large-scale genotyping and phenotyping projects linked to crop diversity around the world. If you’re involved in a project of this type, which we might not know about, please get in touch!

 

Biofortification

Malnutrition is a major global problem that may be tackled in part by the development of crops with improved nutritional value. There are several international projects underway attempting to do just that, and the GPC’s Biofortification initiative was established to act as an advocate for this research, identifying gaps in the current programs and liaising with key stakeholders to ensure major nutritional needs will be met by a coordinated approach.

Last year’s GPC Biofortification Forum meeting generated a set of 10 recommendations, which has been drafted into a white paper and will be finalized by the end of the year. This document has already drawn attention from a number of stakeholders interested in working with the GPC.

 

GPC New Media Fellow tells the AGM about the GPC blog!

GPC New Media Fellow tells the AGM about the GPC blog!

 

Stress Resilience

Just a few days before the GPC AGM, we teamed up with the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) to hold a Stress Resilience Forum in Iguassu Falls, Brazil. The event brought together experts from around the world, representing a diverse range of research organizations. The three-day meeting generated a lot of exciting discussion which will be translated into a forthcoming report, establishing GPC as an integrator and facilitator in the field of stress resilience in crops.

 

Welcoming our new Executive Board

From the 1st November 2015, we welcomed a new Excutive Board to provide leadership and strategic direction for the GPC:

Chair: Barry Pogson, Australian Society of Plant Scientists

Vice-Chair: Ariel Orellana, Chile’s National Network of Plant Biologists

Treasurer: Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston, Society for Experimental Biology

Board Member: Carl Douglas, Canadian Society of Plant Biologists

Board Member: Yusuke Saijo, Japanese Society of Plant Physiologists

 

Thanks for a great year!

The GPC team

Thanks to all from the GPC team! From left to right: Ruth Bastow (Executive Director), Amelia Frizell-Armitage (New Media Fellow), Sarah Jose (New Media Fellow) and Lisa Martin (Outreach and Communications Manager).

 

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.

 

Biofortification

Approaches to biofortification

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

Tackling undernourishment

The share

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

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

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

Addressing obesity

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

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

Purple tomatoes

Professor Cathie Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not all about Genetic Modification

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

Golden rice

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

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

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

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

Next steps

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

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

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.

GPC President Professor Bill Davies’ vision for the future

Global Plant Council President Professor Bill Davies discusses his vision for the future of the GPC and its role in meeting some of the global challenges facing plant science and society today.

GPC President Professor Bill DaviesRaising the profile of plant science

As we face the task of sustainably feeding an ever-increasing global population, the issue of food security has never been more pressing, and of course, plant science plays a fundamental role in addressing this challenge. Professor Davies believes the GPC can have a major impact in raising the profile of plants in all parts of society, but perhaps most urgently with the policy makers who can drive investment into research.

He explains: “Plant science tends to have a lower priority with funding agencies. A number of years ago there was quite a lot of talk about plant science being a pretty mature subject and therefore we didn’t need much money for research. Fortunately the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) managed to convince the European Parliament and others that there was an important opportunity here, the funding continued and we’ve seen a lot of benefits from that – both in furthering plant science and enhancing food production”. He continues: “Raising the profile of plant science is key, and – more specifically – we need to think about ways in which, collectively, we could address some of these challenges”.

A global conversation

Genetic diversity research - CIAT

Image by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Used under: CC BY-SA 2.0

Professor Davies believes the GPC is well placed to tackle global problems on a worldwide scale, by providing platforms for member organizations and individuals to collaborate on a variety of issues: “There are some genuinely global challenges that the GPC could take on. We can try to provide more opportunities for people who might be interested in addressing things beyond the boundaries of their own national scientific societies”. He adds: “I’ve been a member of the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) longer than I care to imagine, and it’s been a really important part of my life. It delivers a lot more than just good science. The SEB has made and continues to make a big effort to operate internationally, but there’s a limit, whereas there’s no limit for GPC.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about is whether there is more that we could offer societies, particularly in developing countries. Are we making resources available that can be as influential in Ghana, for example, as they might be in the United States? If there are opportunities to broaden the scope of that offering, particularly to address some of the areas where food security is a major issue, then we can do that and, I hope, help national societies in parts of the world where they are not as influential as they might be. I believe that there is strength in numbers.

“It seems entirely logical to me to address global challenges with a global organization”.

Building resources

One of the key goals of the GPC is to build up databases of information and resources that can be used by researchers, plant breeders, farmers and other agricultural stakeholders all around the world. This is being done both as part of the three main GPC initiatives (Diversity Seek, Biofortification, and Stress Resilience), but we are also collaborating with the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) to launch an online platform for the plant science community this summer.

Gene bank - IRRI

Image credit: IRRI. Used under: CC BY 2.0

Professor Davies is keen to harness the power of the online community for cultivating a new excitement around plant science. He led a massive open online course (MOOC) about food security at Lancaster University last year, and was pleased to see how engaged the participants were. He explains: “We had 5000 students with a fantastic level of enthusiasm and commitment. At the end of it we were left with the feeling that people were keen to know more.

“My view is that if you listen to people talk about why they do the science they do, what’s involved, and to some extent how they do it, then I think you’re in a position to make a much more well-informed decision about the science in general or controversial issues, and to contribute to the debate”.

Professor Davies believes that the online plant science platform from the ASPB and GPC will provide useful resources for scientists, teachers and students alike: “I’m in this business because I was inspired by lecturers both as an undergraduate and in graduate school. If we can capture the drama and excitement of science, we can make it available to everyone. It’s a wonderful opportunity”.


Professor Bill DaviesProfessor William (Bill) Davies is the President of the Global Plant Council and Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology at Lancaster University, UK. His research into stress responses in plants and his involvement with many international projects aimed at improving global food security led to him being awarded a CBE award for services to Science in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. For more information, click here.

The Nature of Crop Domestication

Why do we eat some plants but not others? What makes a good crop, and how have we transformed these species to suit our own needs?

Around 12,000 years ago, humans began to transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to a more settled agricultural life. We began to selectively breed cereals and other crops to improve desirable traits, such as their yields, taste and seed retention. Today we eat less than 1% of all flowering plant species, relying on a handful of staples for almost all of our calories.

Why do we eat so few plant species?

Professor John Warren, Aberystwyth University

Professor John Warren, Aberystwyth University

We spoke with Professor John Warren at Aberystwyth University in the UK, who delves into the history of crop domestication in his new book, ‘The Nature of Crops: How We Came to Eat the Plants We Do,’ published on 24th April 2015. He blogs about how we came to eat certain plants over at Pick of the Crop, and said that his book developed from there. “The stories of crop domestication are just so interesting, weird, biologically strange, fun – they just demand to be told,” he enthused.

So why do we eat so few of the edible plants in the world? Based on his research into gene flow and plant breeding systems, Professor Warren presents novel theories in his book: “Previously people have argued that it’s because most plant are poisonous, but I don’t think that holds water. We actively seek out toxic plants as crops; plants with large food stores tend to be well defended with toxins. Instead I argue that it’s plant sexual habits that limit crop domestication. Plants with the usual pollination mechanisms don’t make ideal crops as they will fail to set seed when grown on an agricultural scale. Thus we domesticate things that are wind pollinated or pollinated by common generalist insects.”

Science-led crop breeding

Why do we eat poisonous plants?

How did our ancestors come to realise that rhubarb leaves are poisonous but the stems make a tasty crumble? Professor Warren says, “Its discovery was an accident and a fairly recent one – but read the book for the full story.” Image credit: Cory Doctorow used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Professor Warren works at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, which houses much of the research into agriculture and the environment that ties into the theme of his book. “Previously it’s been argued that there haven’t really been any new crops in the last 5,000 years. Here in Aberystwyth, we know that ryegrass, clover, elephant grass and others are still in the process of being domesticated, so you don’t need to be an archaeologist to study the process,” he explained. In addition to breeding new varieties of cereals and forage crops for food and feed, the Public Good Plant Breeding group at IBERS are also in the process of breeding Miscanthus, a fast-growing grass species that could be used for sustainable bioenergy in the future.

Resources like the Diversity Seek (DivSeek) initiative, established by the Global Plant Council in association with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the CGIAR Consortium and the Secretariat of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, could be used to enable science-driven crop breeding and domestication. DivSeek aims to unlock the genetic diversity that is currently stored in genebanks around the world by using cutting edge sequencing, phenotyping and ‘big data’ technologies. The genetic variation that is identified can then be used as the basis for breeding programs and could assist in the domestication of novel crops.

The future of agriculture

Drought damage

Drought damage in California, 2014. Image credit: US Department of Agriculture used under CC BY 2.0.

The crops we eat today were domesticated in highly fertile conditions; this means they are nutritious but tend to demand a high input of fertilizers and water. Professor Warren argues that we can use modern science to develop more sustainable ways to feed the global population: “It’s important that we start to think outside the box and try and domesticate a whole range of new crops that are more sustainable and less demanding of agricultural inputs.” An important source of future crop species could be stress-tolerant plants living in difficult environments: “I think the crops of the future could still be waiting to be domesticated from plants growing in harsh conditions,” explained Professor Warren.

Professor Warren also discussed how we could use underutilized crops in new ways to make agriculture more sustainable in the future: “I think and hope that we will eat more species, and that we will grow many more of these as perennials in poly-culture systems. That makes ecological sense in terms of niche exploitation and yield sustainability. It also makes more genetic sense in terms of resistance to pests and diseases.” The only downside, he said, is that these systems are so different to what we have now that we will need innovative research to develop them.


About Professor John Warren

Akee fruit

The akee is the national fruit of Jamaica. Image credit: Loren Sztajler, used under CC BY-ND 2.0.

John is a plant ecologist at Aberystwyth University, UK, with research interests in the origin and maintenance of diversity and enhancement of conservation value, particularly within agricultural ecosystems. He is the Director of Teaching and Learning and a Professor of Botany in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences. John says the strangest plant he’s ever eaten is the akee, a plant beloved of Jamaicans that looks and tastes a bit like scrambled eggs but which is delicious with saltfish.


Over to you

What do you think will be the most important crops of tomorrow, and which underutilized plants will become dietary staples in an effort to feed the world more sustainably?