A new approach to plant breeding

Sept. 3, 2013

The agriculture industry is facing a gargantuan question – how to feed the world’s increasing population, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, while dealing with less available land, scarcer water, climate changes and mounting environmental concerns.

At least part of the answer will come through groundbreaking science, a process in which Yuma researchers could play a key role.

With increasing competition for land, water and other resources, breeders must develop the next generation of crops that have less negative environmental impact and fewer input requirements. That is, crops that can grow with less water, fertilizer, pesticides, on poorer soils and be less labor-intensive while at the same time producing high-yielding and highly nutritious foods. That’s along with also producing industrial products such as fibers and biofuel feedstocks.

One of the primary bottlenecks in developing sustainable cropping systems is the ability to rapidly, accurately and efficiently measure variations in crop plants and their wild relatives at the phenotype level, say researchers. A phenotype is defined as an organism’s expressed physical traits, and is determined by an individual’s genes, genetic variation and environmental influences.

This has stimulated interest in developing ways to accurately recognize and identify large numbers of individual plants or populations with the desirable characteristics using a fraction of the time and labor of the manual phenotyping methods previously employed.

To that end, discussion is underway to create the Arizona Phenotyping Network that would include both field and greenhouse stations equipped with state-of-the-art analytical instruments that can measure phenotypes from thousands of plants. The information generated would be used to identify and quantify targeted traits. The information could then be used to breed varieties with those traits.

The concept was unveiled to members of the Yuma-area agriculture industry during a recent meeting to gather their input.

Yuma would have a key role in the network, with much of the research to be done at the Yuma Agriculture Center, explained Rod Wing, a plant biologist and director of the Arizona Genomics Institute at the University of Arizona. Other presenters were Chieri Kubota, a UA plant sciences professor, and Matthew Jenks, plant geneticist and research leader with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Arid Land and Research in Maricopa.

Kurt Nolte, executive director of the UA’s Yuma Agricultural Center, also shared in the discussion. He reported that the network would provide an opportunity to develop a plant breeding program in Yuma for vegetables and other locally produced crops, working hand-in-hand with the industry.

“The question is how we will grow enough food to feed the world in 40 years,” said Wing. He has done work with rice, a crop that feeds half the world, and it’s the rice-dependent half of the population that will double by 2050.

“New rice varieties are needed with increased yields and nutrition,” he said. “There are wild rice relatives with untapped reservoirs of genetic variations for crop improvement.”

These traits might include salt and heat tolerance, root types, yields, time-to-market and nutrition, he said. Such work would apply to other crops as well.

But examining plants manually for the desirable traits is a slow, tedious, inefficient process, he said. “Literally getting out the ruler.”

Needed is a fast, accurate and efficient method of finding plants with the sought-after traits that could then be bred, he said.

The vision behind creating the Arizona Phenotyping Network is to develop powerful high-throughput phenotyping platforms, Wing said. “Arizona could establish itself as a national and international leader in transitional genomics, that is, translate basic discoveries into practical solutions for agriculture.”

The goal is to establish APN within the next one to three years. Key partnerships would include Yuma Agricultural Center, Maricopa Agricultural Center, U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center and University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Ag Center, School of Plant Sciences, iPlant, Ag Biosystems Engineering, Planetary Sciences, Optical Sciences and Tech Launch Arizona. Collaborators would include seed companies, biotechnology industries, farmers and international organizations.

Funding would be an issue, Wing acknowledged, noting that grants might be available through the National Science Foundation and other sources.

Successful phenotyping facilities have been developed worldwide, including Australian Plant Phenopmics Facility, Huazhong Agricultural University in China, PhenoFab in Holland and by Monsanto.

While many of these are greenhouse-based facilities and under more mild climate conditions, APN’s proposed facilities would use typical arid agricultural field cropping systems in addition to controlled environment greenhouses, Wing said. Arizona’s unique climate allows for precise control over irrigation and the ability to explore plant growth under high temperatures, making the state an excellent location to screen genetic diversity in crops for drought, the major cause of yield reduction, as well as for heat tolerance.

The proposal was met with some interest in developing disease-resistant plant varieties that would do well in the desert Southwest. But it also raised concerns that it not involve GMOs — genetically modified organisms — that have been met with considerable consumer resistance.

“We could produce lettuce with less fertilizer and one-third less water, but would people eat it?” asked Marcus Moore.

“I think we can get what you want through traditional breeding,” Wing responded. “We would use sensors to identify desirable traits in isolated plants, then use traditional breeding to replicate them.”

Rick Rademacher, a local grower and former seed company representative, also raised a concern about the program competing with seed companies.

“They’re so innovative and they’re very protective of their work,” he said. “If you try to compete with them, you’re already behind. But if you could find some desirable trait, that could be helpful ... try to work on things that are bigger than one company, like disease resistance.”

Wing answered that “we envision the facilities to be a service to the industry.”

For example, he said, “the price of water will go up. You guys will need more productivity with less water.”

But in the end, he concluded, the challenge is that “we have only 40 years to solve the question of how to feed 9 billion people.”

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