Plant Breeding Innovation Can Help Feed The World’s Growing Population
Philadelphia (April 10, 2017) — A new report in Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences describes advances in plant breeding technologies that have enabled the development of new, improved varieties more rapidly than ever before. As discussed in the report, a variety of technologies is enabling an understanding of improved characteristics in crops allowing breeders to address challenges that include increased demand for food as well as challenges including disease, pests, climate change and more aggressive weeds.
The report’s authors include Dr. David Songstad, Cibus’ Director, Cell Biology; Dr. Joseph Petolino of the Biotechnology Department at Ivy Tech Community College (formerly a Research Fellow at Dow AgroSciences); and Dr. Nancy Reichert of the Department of Biological Sciences at Mississippi State University.
The science of plant breeding started over 10,000 years ago when early civilizations recognized the benefits of collecting seed from the best performing plants and cultivating it to produce the following season’s crop. Over hundreds of years plant breeders have selected varieties that were better tasting, more productive and easier to manage to produce the crops we grow today. “When it comes to increasing productivity, diversity and quality, plant breeders have an impressive record that is well-documented,” Songstad said. With a global population expected to approach ten billion by 2050, increases in productivity will need to grow even more rapidly to meet this new demand. “These challenges and the question of how to accelerate the breeding process to deliver results found in nature faster and more efficiently are inspiring plant biologists, geneticists and agronomists to innovate.”
To improve productivity, taste and other desirable characteristics, breeders have needed to find and enrich for useful genetic variation. In the early years, variation occurred randomly and infrequently. Generations of useful diversity were augmented by tools such as chemical and physical mutagenic agents. These agents resulted in the development of over 3,000 products that have benefited agriculture and humankind. “When you think about it, this is amazing since each of these arose from researchers screening through thousands of treated plants looking for that needle in a haystack – never knowing if they would find any beneficial changes,” Reichert said.
Most recently, the diversity that breeders select for has been further accelerated through a variety of technologies such as zinc-finger nucleases, TALENs (transcription activator-like effector nucleases) and CRISPRs (clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats) alone or in combination with various repair templates. The tools of precision gene editing are inspired by and can help accelerate random and infrequent natural variation. According to Dr. Petolino, an early adopter of genome editing in plants, “These technologies can be thought of as the rudimentary ‘pencils and erasers’ for ultimately ‘rewriting’ the code of life.”