Chinese plant science and Journal of Experimental Botany

Jonathan IngramThis week’s post was written by Jonathan Ingram, Senior Commissioning Editor / Science Writer for the Journal of Experimental Botany. Jonathan moved from lab research into publishing and communications with the launch of Trends in Plant Science in 1995, then going on to New Phytologist and, in the third sector, Age UK and Mind.

 

In this week of the XIXth International Botanical Congress (IBC) in Shenzhen, it seems appropriate to highlight outstanding research from labs in China. More than a third of the current issue of Journal of Experimental Botany is devoted to papers from labs across this powerhouse of early 21st century plant science.

Collaborations are key, and this was a theme that came up time again at the congress. The work by Yongzhe Gu et al. is a fine example, involving scientists at four institutions studying a WRKY gene in wild and cultivated soybean: in Beijing, the State Key Laboratory of Systematic and Evolutionary Botany at the Institute of Botany in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; and in Harbin (Heilongjiang), the Crop Tillage and Cultivation Institute at Heilongjiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and the College of Agriculture at Northeast Agricultural University. Interest here centers on the changes which led to the increased seed size in cultivated soybean with possible practical application in cultivation and genetic improvement of such a vital crop.

 

Crops and gardens

Botanic gardens are also part of the picture. In another paper in the same issue, Yang Li et al. from the Key Laboratory of Tropical Plant Resources and Sustainable Use at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Kunming (Yunnan) and the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing present research on DELLA-interacting proteins in Arabidopsis. Here the authors show that bHLH48 and bHLH60 are transcription factors involved in GA-mediated control of flowering under long-day conditions.

IBC 2017

Naturally, research on rice is important. Wei Jiang et al. from the National Key Laboratory of Crop Genetic Improvement, Huazhong Agricultural University (Wuhan) describe their research on WOX11 and the control of crown root development in the nation’s grain of choice, which will be important for breeders looking to increase crop yields and resilience.

The other work featured is either in Arabidopsis or plants of economic importance: Fangfang Zheng et al. (Qingdao Agricultural University, also with collaborators in Maryland) and Xiuli Han et al. (Beijing); Yun-Song Lai et al. (Beijing/Chengdu – cucumber), Wenkong Yao et al. (Yangling, Shaanxi – Chinese grapevine, Vitis pseudoreticulata), and Xiao-Juan Liu et al. (Tai-an, Shandong – apple).

 

Development of plant science

Shenzehn has grown rapidly and is now highly significant for life science as home to the China National GeneBank (CNGB) project led by BGI Genomics. The vision as set out by Huan-Ming Yang, chairman of BGI-Shenzhen, is profound – from sequencing what’s already here, often in numbers per species, to innovative synthetic biology.

Shenzehn is also home to another significant institution, the beautiful and scientifically important Fairy Lake Botanic Garden. At the IBC, the importance of biodiversity conservation for effective, economically focused plant science, but also for so many other reasons to do with our intimate relationship with plants and continued co-existence on the planet, was a central theme.

The research highlighted in Journal of Experimental Botany is part of the wider, positive growth of plant science (and, indeed, botany) not just in China, but worldwide. The Shenzehn Declaration on Plant Sciences with its seven priorities for strategic action, launched at the congress, will be a guide for the right development in coming years.

2015 Plant Science Round Up

Following on from last week’s post, Now That’s What I Call Plant Science 2015, we bring you a year in Plant Science!

January

Arabidopsis

Image credit: Jean Weber. Used under license CC BY 2.0.

The year began with a surprising paper that turned our understanding of the phytohormone auxin on its head. Researchers in China and the USA created Arabidopsis knockout mutants of AUXIN BINDING PROTEIN 1 (ABP1), expecting them to fail to respond to auxin and have developmental defects, as previously seen in the abp1-1 knockdown mutant. Instead, these plants were indistinguishable from wild type plants, leading the authors to conclude that ABP1 is not required for auxin signaling or Arabidopsis development as previously believed.

Read the paper in PNAS: Auxin binding protein 1 (ABP1) is not required for either auxin signaling or Arabidopsis development.

A paper later in the year from the same authors found that the embryonic lethality of the abp1-1 mutant is actually caused by the off-target linked deletion of the adjacent BSM gene.

Read this paper in Nature Plants: Embryonic lethality of Arabidopsis abp1-1 is caused by deletion of the adjacent BSM gene.

The tale of ABP1 was examined in more detail on the GARNet blog, Weeding the Gems, which concluded: “In many ways this story is an excellent example of how science should work, where claims are independently tested to ensure that earlier experiments have been conducted or interpreted correctly.” Click here to read more.

 

February

A clever experiment from Germany led to a significant breakthrough in crop protection from insect pests.

When double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) is present within a eukaryotic cell, it is cleaved by the Dicer enzyme to form short interfering RNAs. These can bind to complementary RNA within a cell to target it for destruction, thus silencing the corresponding gene expression. This process is known as RNA interference (RNAi).

RNAi has previously been used to tackle insect herbivory by expressing insect-specific dsRNA in plants; however the protection has previously been incomplete. In this new study, published in Science, researchers produced dsRNA within chloroplasts, which do not have RNAi machinery. When dsRNA is expressed in the cytoplasm, the plant’s own Dicer enzyme breaks most of it down. When expressed in the chloroplasts, the dsRNA remained intact when eaten by insects, which proved much more effective at killing these pests.

Read the paper here: Full crop protection from an insect pest by expression of long double-stranded RNAs in plastids.

 

March

Another crop protection study followed in March, when researchers in China cloned the genetic locus in rice that confers broad-spectrum resistance to planthoppers – insect pests that cause the loss of billions of dollars of crops per year. Three lectin receptor kinase genes were found in rice cultivars from the Philippines, which enable plants to survive an infestation of insects. When cloned into a susceptible rice cultivar, these genes conferred resistance to two different planthopper species.

Understanding the genetic basis of resistance is very important as marker-assisted breeding and selection could be used to develop resistant rice varieties, and potentially utilized in other species of cereal.

Read the paper in Nature Biotechnology: A gene cluster encoding lectin receptor kinases confers broad-spectrum and durable insect resistance in rice

 

April

A European collaboration led to the development of 3DCellAtlas, a computational approach that semi-automatically identifies cell types in a developing 3D organ without the need for transgenic lineage markers. This program will enable the interpretation of dynamic organ growth and the spatial and temporal context of developmental cell divisions that produce the resultant plant. It could be integrated with growth in different conditions or with developmental mutants to examine exactly how these processes affect growth in 3D.

3DCellAtlas

Image credit: Montenegro-Johnson et al., 2015. Digital Single-Cell Analysis of Plant Organ Development Using 3DCellAtlas. The Plant Cell, vol. 27 no. 4, 1018–1033.

 

May

A special issue of the Plant Biotechnology Journal was published in May, focusing on the amazing advances in molecular farming. While the entire issue is worth delving into, we were particularly intrigued by the review on moss-made pharmaceuticals, which outlines the rapid progress made in the field.

The model moss Physcomitrella patens has rapidly become one of the organisms of choice in biotechnology, with a fully sequenced genome and an outstanding toolbox for genome-engineering. The authors describe how moss-made pharmaceuticals can easily be produced while remaining remarkably more stable from batch to batch than cultured animal cells. The system is easily scalable, making their production highly cost effective, and safe. The first moss-made pharmaceuticals are currently in clinical trials, so keep an eye out for much more from this field over the next few years.

Read the review: Moss-made pharmaceuticals: from bench to bedside.

 

June

In June, US researchers discovered a new role for chloroplast stromules, protrusions that extend from the surface of all plastid types. The function of stromules has been difficult to determine, but this research, published in Developmental Cell, suggests that they may provide a mechanism by which plastid signals are conveyed to the nucleus. The paper shows that chloroplast stromules are induced by defense responses such as programmed cell death signaling, and that the stromules extend to form dynamic connections with the nucleus. The stromules may therefore aid in the amplification and/or transport of immune response signals into the nucleus.

Read the paper: Chloroplast Stromules Function during Innate Immunity.

 

July

Extracellular self-DNA

Image credit: Veresoglou et al., 2015. Self-DNA: a blessing in disguise? New Phytologist, vol. 207, no. 3, 488–490.

In late 2014 and early 2015, Italian researchers published a set of articles showing that extracellular self-DNA, DNA from conspecifics, could inhibit the growth of organisms from a wide range of taxa, including plants, bacteria, fungi and animals. Conversely, these organisms were not affected by extracellular DNA from other unrelated species.

In July, New Phytologist published a letter offering an interpretation of the data as it relates to plants. Plants could interpret extracellular self-DNA as an indicator of intraspecific competition (which seeds could use as a cue to remain dormant) or of a hostile environment that has already caused the death of conspecifics, signaling them to ramp up their pre-emptive immune response to increase survival after neighbors have been damaged or killed. There are still a lot of mechanisms and ecological effects to be investigated in this new field, but this letter suggests several interesting avenues to investigate.

Read the article: Self-DNA: a blessing in disguise?

Original research papers in New Phytologist:

Inhibitory and toxic effects of extracellular self-DNA in litter: a mechanism for negative plant–soil feedbacks?

Inhibitory effects of extracellular self-DNA: a general biological process?

 

August

A US study in August revealed a surprising degree of conservation in gene expression patterns across a wide range of plant taxa during root development. This was particularly interesting because the spikemoss Selaginella was shown to use many of the same genes as the evolutionarily distant angiosperms, despite the fossil record suggesting that roots evolved independently in these two lineages. Perhaps roots in these two groups evolved by independently recruiting the same developmental program, or perhaps by elaborating on a previously unknown proto-root that existed in the common ancestor of vascular plants.

Read the paper in The Plant Cell: Conserved Gene Expression Programs in Developing Roots from Diverse Plants.

 

September

Salt stress can significantly reduce the growth and yield of plants. Researchers in Germany identified two components of the cellulose synthase complex that directly interact with the microtubules and promote their dynamics, which interestingly were highly produced during salt stress conditions. During salt stress, cellulose microtubules depolymerize, however the newly discovered compounds, known as Companions of Cellulose Synthase, promote the reassembly of the microtubule to allow cellulose synthesis to continue.

Read the paper in Cell: A Mechanism for Sustained Cellulose Synthesis during Salt Stress

 

October

Throughout the year the GM debate in Europe reached several important milestones. In January the European Union (EU) changed its rules, giving individual countries more flexibility to decide for themselves whether or not to plant GM crops. In February, the UK Science and Technology Committee report stated that EU regulations preventing GM crops are not fit for purpose, and that they should be replaced with a trait-based system.

In October, EU member states revealed their stances on GM crops, with over half of Europe opting out of growing GM crops. Germany was the largest country to opt out of growing GM. The full list can be viewed here: Restrictions of geographical scope of GMO.

Read the news articles here:

EU changes rules on GM crop cultivation – January 2015

EU regulation on GM Organisms not ‘fit for purpose’ – February 2015

Half of Europe opts out of new GM crop scheme – October 2015

 

November

A collaboration between South African and UK scientists revealed how plants can use their circadian clock to pre-emptively boost their immune resistance at dawn, when fungal infection is most likely. Plants tend to decrease in susceptibility at dawn, but those with dysfunctional circadian clocks remained highly susceptible throughout the day. The research also showed that jasmonate signaling plays a crucial role in the circadian timing of resistance.

Read the article in The Plant Journal: Jasmonate signalling drives time-of-day differences in susceptibility of Arabidopsis to the fungal pathogen Botrytis cinerea.

 

December

Single nucleotide exon

Image credit: Guo & Liu., 2015. A single-nucleotide exon found in Arabidopsis. Scientific Reports, 5:18087.

Researchers in China published the surprising finding that a single-nucleotide exon exists in the APC11 gene in Arabidopsis. This is the smallest exon ever to be discovered before. The team used an elegant set of APC11-GFP constructs to show that intron splicing around the single-nucleotide exon is effective in both Arabidopsis and rice. This finding has implications for future genome annotations, which might reveal many more single-nucleotide exons.

Read the paper in Scientific Reports: A single-nucleotide exon found in Arabidopsis.

 

What a wonderful year of science! What new knowledge will 2016 bring?

Now That’s What I Call Plant Science 2015

With another year nearly over we recently put out a call for nominations for the Most Influential Plant Science Research of 2015. Suggestions flooded in, and we also trawled through our social media feeds to see which stories inspired the most discussion and engagement. It was fantastic to read about so much amazing research from around the world. Below are our top five, selected based on impact for the plant science research community, engagement on social media, and importance for both policy and potential end product/application.

Choosing the most inspiring stories was not an easy job. If you think we’ve missed something, please let us know in the comments below, or via Twitter! In the coming weeks we’ll be posting a 2015 Plant Science Round Up, which will include other exciting research that didn’t quite make the top five, so watch this space!

  1. Sweet potato is a naturally occurring GM crop
Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop

Sweet potato contains genes from bacteria making it a naturally occurring GM crop. Image from Mike Licht used under creative commons license 2.0

Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, found that 291 varieties of sweet potato actually contain bacterial genes. This technically means that sweet potato is a naturally occurring genetically modified crop! Alongside all the general discussion about GM regulations, particularly in parts of Europe where regulations about growing GM crops have been decentralized from Brussels to individual EU Member States, this story caused much discussion on social media when it was published in March of this year.

It is thought that ancestors of the modern sweet potato were genetically modified by bacteria in the soil some 8000 years ago. Scientists hypothesize that it was this modification that made consumption and domestication of the crop possible. Unlike the potato, sweet potato is not a tuber but a mere root. The bacteria genes are thought to be responsible for root swelling, giving it the fleshy appearance we recognize today.

This story is incredibly important, firstly because sweet potato is the world’s seventh most important food crop, so knowledge of its genetics and development are essential for future food supply. Secondly, Agrobacterium is frequently used by scientists to artificially genetically modify plants. Evidence that this process occurs in nature opens up the conversation about GM, the methods used in this technology, and the safety of these products for human consumption.

Read the original paper in PNAS here.

  1. RNA-guided Cas9 nuclease creates targetable heritable mutations in Barley and Brassica

Our number two on the list also relates to genetic modification, this time focusing on methods. Regardless of whether or not we want to have genetically modified crops in our food supply, GM is a valuable tool used by researchers to advance knowledge of gene function at the genetic and phenotypic level. Therefore, systems of modification that make the process faster, cheaper, and more accurate provide fantastic opportunities for the plant science community to progress its understanding.

The Cas9 system is a method of genome editing that can make precise changes at specific locations in the genome relatively cheaply. This novel system uses small non-coding RNA to direct Cas9 nuclease to the DNA target site. This type of RNA is small and easy to program, providing a flexible and easily accessible system for genome editing.

Barley in the field

Barley in the field. Image by Moldova_field used under creative commons license 2.0

Inheritance of genome modifications using Cas9 has previously been shown in the model plants, Arabidopsis and rice. However, the efficiency of this inheritance, and therefore potential application in crop plants has been questionable.

The breakthrough study published in November by researchers at The Sainsbury Laboratory and John Innes Centre both in Norwich, UK, demonstrated the mutation of two commercial crop plants, Barley and Brassica oleracea, using the Cas9 system and subsequent inheritance mutations.

This is an incredibly exciting development in the plant sciences and opens up many options in the future in terms of genome editing and plant science research.

Read the full paper in Genome Biology here.

  1. Control of Striga growth

Striga is a parasitic plant that mainly affects parts of Africa. It is a major threat to food crops such as rice and corn, leading to yield losses worth over 10 billion US dollars, and affecting over 100 million people.

Striga infects the host crop plant through its roots, depriving them of their nutrients and water. The plant hormone strigolactone, which is released by host plants, is known to induce Striga germination when host plants are nearby.

In a study published in August of this year the Striga receptors for this hormone, and the proteins responsible for striga germination were identified.

Striga plants are known to wither and die if they cannot find a host plant upon germination. Induction of early germination using synthetic hormones could therefore remove Striga populations before crops are planted. This work is vital in terms of regulating Striga populations in areas where they are hugely damaging to crop plants and people’s livelihoods.

Read the full study in Science here.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed.

Striga, a parasitic plant. Also known as Witchweed. Image from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture used under creative commons license 2.0

  1. Resurrection plants genome harvesting

Resurrection plants are a unique group of flora that can survive extreme water shortages for months or even years. There are more than 130 varieties in the world, and many researchers believe that unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers working in increasingly hot and dry conditions.

During a drought, the plant acts like a seed, becoming so dry that it appears dead. But as soon as the rains come, the shriveled plant bursts ‘back to life’, turning green and robust in just a few hours.

In November, researchers from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre in Missouri, US, published the complete draft genome of Oropetium thomaeum, a resurrection grass species.

O. thomaeum is a small C4 grass species found in Africa and India. It is closely related to major food feed and bioenergy crops. Therefore this work represents a significant step in terms of understanding novel drought tolerance mechanisms that could be used in agriculture.

Read the full paper in Nature here.

  1. Supercomputing overcomes major ecological challenge

Currently, one of the greatest challenges for ecologists is to quantify plant diversity and understand how this affects plant survival. For the last 500 years independent research groups around the world have collected this diversity data, which has made organization and collaboration difficult in the past.

Over the last 500 years, independent research groups have collected a wealth of diversity data. The Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) are collecting and collating these data together for the Americas using high performance computing (HPC) and data resources, via the iPlant Collaborative and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). This will allow researchers to draw on data right from the earliest plant collections up to the modern day to understand plant diversity.

There are approximately 120,000 plant species in North and South America, but mapping and determining the hotspots of species richness requires computationally intensive geographic range estimates. With supercomputing the BIEN group could generate and store geographic range estimates for plant species in the Americas.

It also gives ecologists the ability to document continental scale patterns of species diversity, which show where any species of plant might be found. These novel maps could prove a fantastic resource for ecologists working on diversity and conservation.

Read more about this story on the TACC website, here.

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.