Wheat is the most
widely grown crop in the world, currently providing about 20 percent of human
calorie consumption. However, demand is predicted to
increase by 60 percent within just 30 years, while long-term climate trends
threaten to reduce wheat productivity, especially in less developed countries.
For over half a
century, the International Wheat Improvement Network (IWIN), coordinated by CIMMYT, has
been a global leader in breeding and disseminating improved wheat varieties to
combat this problem, with a major focus on the constraints of resource poor
networks — the Heat and Drought Wheat Improvement Consortium (HeDWIC) and the
International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP) — are helping to meet the future
demand for wheat consumption through global collaboration and technological partnership.
By harnessing the latest technologies in crop physiology, genetics and breeding, network researchers support the development of new varieties that aim to be more climate resilient, in the case of HeDWIC and with higher yield potential, in the case of IWYP.
approaches to collaboration take wheat research from the theoretical to the
practical and incorporate science into real-life breeding scenarios. Methods such as screening genetic resources
for physiological traits related to radiation use efficiency and identifying
common genetic bases for heat and drought adaptation are leading to more
precise breeding strategies and more data for models of genotype-by-environment
interaction that help build new plant types and experimental environments for
IWYP addresses the challenge of raising the genetic wheat yield potential of wheat by up to 50 percent in the next two decades. Achieving this goal requires a strategic and collaborative approach to enable the best scientific teams from across the globe to work together in an integrated program. TheIWYP model of collaboration fosters linkages between ongoing research platforms to develop a cohesive portfolio of activities that maximizes the probability of impact in farmers’ fields IWYP research uses genomic selection to complement the crossing of complex traits by identifying favorable allele combinations among progeny. The resulting products are delivered to national wheat programs worldwide through the IWIN international nursery system.
Recently, IWYP research achieved genetic gains through the strategic crossing of biomass and harvest index — source and sink — an approach that also validates the feasibility of incorporating exotic germplasm into mainstream breeding efforts.
In the case of HeDWIC, intensified — and possibly new — breeding strategies are needed to improve the yield potential of wheat in hotter and drier environments. This also requires a combined effort, using genetic diversity with physiological and molecular breeding and bioinformatic technologies, along with the adoption of improved agronomic practices by farmers. The approach already has proof of concept in the release and adoption of three heat and drought tolerant lines in Pakistan.
It is imperative to build increased yield and climate-resilience to into future germplasm in order to avoid the risk of climate-related crop failure and to maintain global food security in a warmer climate. Partnerships like HeDWIC and IWYP give hope to meeting this urgent food security challenge.
Unlike animals, plants can’t run away when things get bad. That can be the weather changing or a caterpillar starting to slowly munch on a leaf. Instead, they change themselves inside, using a complex system of hormones, to adapt to challenges.
At the heart of this connection is the chloroplast, the engine of photosynthesis. It specializes in producing compounds that plants survive with. But plants have evolved ways to use it for other, completely unrelated purposes.
Their trick is to harvest their own chloroplasts’ protective membranes, made of lipids, the molecules found in fats and oils. Lipids have many uses, from making up cell boundaries, to being part of plant hormones, to storing energy.
If plants need lipids for some purpose other than serving as membranes, special proteins break down chloroplast membrane lipids. Then, the resulting products go to where they need to be for further processing.
Now, Kun (Kenny) Wang, a former Benning lab grad student, reports two more such chloroplast proteins with different purposes. Their lipid breakdown products help plants turn on their defense system against living pests and other herbivores. In turn, the proteins, PLIP2 and PLIP3, are themselves activated by another defense system against non-living threats.
Playing the telephone game inside plants
In a nutshell, the plant plays a version of the popular children’s game, Telephone, with itself. In the real game, players form a line. The first person whispers a message into the ear of the next person in the line, and so on, until the last player announces the message to the entire group.
In plants, defense systems and chloroplasts also pass along chemical messages down a line. Breaking it down:
The plant senses non-living threats, like cold or drought, and indicates it through one hormone (ABA)
This alarm triggers the two identified proteins to breakdown lipids from the chloroplast membrane
The lipid products turn into another hormone (JA) which takes part in the insect defense system. Plant growth slows to a crawl. Energy goes to producing defensive chemicals.
Kenny adds, “The chloroplast is amazing. We suspect its membrane lipids spur functions other than defense or oil production. That implies more Telephone games leading to different ends we don’t know yet. We have yet to properly examine that area.”
“Those functions could help us better understand plants and engineer them to be more resistant to complex stresses.”
“They look at lipid metabolism in mammals and have started a project connecting it with brain disease in humans,” Kenny says. “There is increasing evidence that problems with lipid metabolism in the brain might lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc.”
“I benefited a lot from my time at MSU. The community is very successful here: the people are nice, and you have support from colleagues and facilities. Although we scientists should sometimes be independent in our work, we also need to interact with our communities. No matter how good you are, there is a limit to your impact as an individual. That is one of the lessons I applied when looking for my post-doc.”
Atsuko Kanazawa is a plant scientist in the lab of David Kramer. Her main focus is on understanding the basics of photosynthesis, the process by which plants capture solar energy to generate our planet’s food supply.
This type of research has implications beyond academia, however, and the Kramer lab is using their knowledge, in addition to new technologies developed in their labs, to help farmers improve land management practices.
Atsuko recently joined a contingent that attended a LIL conference in Burkina Faso to discuss legume management with scientists from West Africa, Central America, Haiti, and the US. The experience was an eye opener, to say the least.
To understand some of the challenges faced by farmers in Africa, take a look at this picture, Atsuko says.
“When we look at corn fields in the Midwest, the corn stalks grow uniformly and are usually about the same height,” Atsuko says. “As you can see in this photo from Burkina Faso, their growth is not even.”
“Soil scientists tell us that much farmland in Africa suffers from poor nutrient content. In fact, farmers sometimes rely on finding a spot of good growth where animals have happened to fertilize the soil.”
Even if local farmers understand their problems, they often find that the appropriate solutions are beyond their reach. For example, items like fertilizer and pesticides are very expensive to buy.
That is where USAID’s Feed the Future and LIL step in, bringing economists, educators, nutritionists, and scientists to work with local universities, institutions, and private organizations towards designing best practices that improve farming and nutrition.
Atsuko says, “LIL works with local populations to select the most suitable crops for local conditions, improve soil quality, and manage pests and diseases in financially and environmentally sustainable ways.”
Unearthing sources of protein
At the Burkina Faso conference, the Kramer lab reported how a team of US and Zambian researchers are mapping bean genes and identifying varieties that can sustainably grow in hot and drought conditions.
The team is relying on a new technology platform, called PhotosynQ, which has been designed and developed in the Kramer labs in Michigan.
Atsuko notes that the Zambia project’s focus on beans is part of the larger context under which USAID and LIL are functioning.
“From what I was told by other scientists, protein availability in diets tends to be a problem in developing countries, and that particularly affects children’s development,” Atsuko says. “Beans are cheaper than meat, and they are a good source of protein. Introducing high quality beans aims to improve nutrition quality.”
Science alone is sometimes not enough
But, as LIL has found, good science and relationships don’t necessarily translate into new crops being embraced by local communities.
Farmers might be reluctant to try a new variety, because they don’t know how well it will perform or if it will cook well or taste good. They also worry that if a new crop is popular, they won’t have ready access to seed quantities that meet demand.
Sometimes, as Atsuko learned at the conference, the issue goes beyond farming or nutrition considerations. In one instance, local West African communities were reluctant to try out a bean variety suggested by LIL and its partners.
The issue was its color.
“One scientist reported that during a recent famine, West African countries imported cowpeas from their neighbors, and those beans had a similar color to the variety LIL was suggesting. So the reluctance was related to a memory from a bad time.”
This particular story does have a happy ending. LIL and the Burkina Faso governmental research agency, INERA, eventually suggested two varieties of cowpeas that were embraced by farmers. Their given names best translate as, “Hope,” and “Money,” perhaps as anticipation of the good life to come.
Another fruitful, perhaps more direct, approach of working with local communities has been supporting women-run cowpea seed and grain farms. These ventures are partnerships between LIL, the national research institute, private institutions, and Burkina Faso’s state and local governments.
Atsuko and other conference attendees visited two of these farms in person. The Women’s Association Yiye in Lago is a particularly impressive success story. Operating since 2009, it now includes 360 associated producing and processing groups, involving 5642 women and 40 men.
“They have been very active,” Atsuko remarks. “You name it: soil management, bean quality management, pest and disease control, and overall economic management, all these have been implemented by this consortium in a methodical fashion.”
“One of the local farm managers told our visiting group that their crop is wonderful, with high yield and good nutrition quality. Children are growing well, and their families can send them to good schools.”
As the numbers indicate, women are the main force behind the success. The reason is that, usually, men don’t do the fieldwork on cowpeas. “But that local farm manager said that now the farm is very successful, men were going to have to work harder and pitch in!”
Back in Michigan, Atsuko is back to the lab bench to continue her photosynthesis research. She still thinks about her Burkina Faso trip, especially how her participation in LIL’s collaborative framework facilitates the work she and her colleagues pursue in West Africa and other parts of the continent.
“We are very lucky to have technologies and knowledge that can be adapted by working with local populations. We ask them to tell us what they need, because they know what the real problems are, and then we jointly try to come up with tailored solutions.”
“It is a successful model, and I feel we are very privileged to be a part of our collaborators’ lives.”
This week we spoke to Dr. Joe Cornelius, the Program Director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). His work focusses on bioenergy production and conversion as a renewable and sustainable energy source, transportation fuel, and chemical feedstock, applying innovations in biotechnology, genomics, metabolic engineering, molecular breeding, computational analytics, remote sensing, and precision robotics to improve biomass energy density, production intensity, and environmental impacts.
Program development is one of the unique characteristics of the agency. ARPA-E projects are in the hands of term-limited program directors, who develop a broad portfolio of concepts that could make a large impact in the agency’s three primary mission areas: energy security, energy efficiency, and emissions reductions. The agency motto is “Changing what’s possible”, and we are always asking ourselves, “if it works, will it matter?”. Getting a program approved is a lot like a doing a PhD; you survey the field, host a workshop, determine key points to research, define aggressive performance metrics, and finally defend the idea to the faculty. If the idea passes muster, the agency makes a targeted investment. This flexibility was recently noticed as one of the great aspects of ARPA-E culture and is an exciting part of the job.
What is TERRA and how is it new for agriculture?
TERRA stands for Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture, and its impact mission is to accelerate genetic gains in plant breeding. This is an advanced analytics platform for plant breeding. Today, significant scientific progress is possible through the convergence of diverse technologies, and TERRA’s innovation for breeders comes through the integration of remote sensing, computer vision, analytics, and genetics. The teams are using robots to carry cameras to the field and then extracting phenotypes and performing gene linkages. It’s really awesome to see.
This is run by the U.S. Department of Energy. How does TERRA tie into energy?
The United States has a great potential to generate biomass for conversion to cellulosic ethanol, but the crops useful for producing this biomass have not seen the improvement that others, such as soybeans or maize, have had. TERRA is focused on sorghum, which is a productive and resilient crop with existing commercial infrastructure that can yield advanced biomass on marginal lands. In addition, sorghum is a key food and feed crop, and the rest of the world will benefit from these advancements.
How does TERRA address the challenge of phenotyping in the field?
The real challenges that remain are in calibrating the sensor output and generating biological insight. A colleague from the United Kingdom, Tony Pridmore, captured the thought well, saying “Photography is not phenotying.” It’s generally easy to take the pictures — unless it’s very windy, the aerial platforms can pass over any crop, and the ground platforms are based on proven agricultural equipment. To get biological insights however, each team requires an analytics component, and a team from IBM is contributing their analytics expertise in collaboration with Purdue University.
What is most exciting about the TERRA program?
We commissioned the world’s biggest agricultural field robot, which phenotypes year-round. The six teams have successfully built other lightweight platforms involving tractors, rovers, mini-bots, and fixed and rotary wing unmanned aerial vehicles. It’s exciting to see some of the most advanced technologies move so quickly into the hands of great geneticists. The amazing thing is how quickly the teams have started generating phenotyping data. I expected it to take years before we got to this point, but the teams are knocking it out of the park, and we are entering into full-blown breeding systems deployment.
Who’s on the TERRA teams? How did you build the program?
ARPA-E system teams include large businesses, startups, and university groups. The program was built to have a full portfolio of diverse sensor suites, robotic platform types (ground and aerial), analytics approaches, and geographic breadth. Because breeders are working for a particular target population of environments, different phenotypes are valued differently across the various geographies. For that reason, each group is collecting its own set of phenotypes. Beyond that, we’ve worked very hard to encourage collaboration across the teams and have an exciting GxE (genotype x environment) experiment running, where several teams plant the same germplasm across multiple geographies. By combining this with high-throughput phenotyping, the teams are in a good position to determine key environmental inputs to various traits.
Once we achieve rapid-fire field phenotyping, what’s next?
We’re going underground! ARPA-E has made another targeted investment, this time in root phenotyping. We’re really excited about this one. It’s a very similar concept, but the sensing is so much harder. The teams have collaborated with medical, mining, aerospace, and defense communities for technologies that can allow us to observe root and soil systems in the field to allow breeders to improve crops. Ask us again next year—we will have some cool updates to both programs!