To feed the future, we must mine the wealth of the world's seed banks today, geneticist says

Jul 05, 2013
Credit: Wikipedia.

With fewer than a dozen flowering plants out of 300,000 species accounting for 80 percent of humanity's caloric intake, people need to tap unused plants to feed the world in the near future, claims Cornell University plant geneticist Susan McCouch in the Comment feature of the July 4 issue of Nature.

To keep pace with and rising incomes around the world, researchers estimate that must double in the next 25 years. The biodiversity stored in banks coupled with advances in genetics and plant breeding may hold the keys for meeting the demands of more food in the face of , soil degradation and water and land shortages, according to the paper.

"Gene banks hold hundreds of thousands of seeds and tissue culture materials collected from farmer's fields and from wild, ancestral populations, providing the raw material that plant breeders need to create crops of the future," said McCouch.

For example, after screening more than 6,000 varieties from seed banks, plant breeders identified and crossbred a single wild species of rice, Oryza nivara; the result is a variety that has protected against grassy stunt virus disease in almost all tropical rice varieties in Asia for the past 36 years, the paper states. Similarly, by 1997, the value of using crop wild relatives as sources of environmental resilience and resistance to pests and diseases led to an estimated $115 billion in annual benefits to the .

Though seeds are readily accessible in 1,700 gene banks throughout the world, "they are not used to their full potential in plant breeding," McCouch said.

At present, it is difficult for breeders to make use of the wealth of genetic material in seed banks because of a lack of information about the genes in most plants and the traits they confer, she said. Due to the time and effort required to identify and then use wild and unadapted genetic resources, "a breeder must have a good idea about the genetic value of an uncharacterized resource before attempting to use it in a breeding program," McCouch said.

In the paper, McCouch and colleagues outlined a three-point plan to address these constraints:

  • A massive genetic sequencing effort on seed-bank holdings to document what exists in the collections, to strategically target experiments to evaluate what traits a plant has (called phenotyping) and to begin to predict plant performance.
  • A broad phenotyping initiative, not only of the gene bank holdings, but also of the progeny generated from crossing wild and exotic materials to adapted varieties targeted for local use.
  • An internationally accessible informatics infrastructure to coordinate data that are currently managed independently by gene-bank curators, agronomists and breeders.

The estimated cost for such a systematic, collaborative global effort to help characterize the genetic resources needed to feed the future is about $200 million annually, according to McCouch.

"This seems like great value, given that as a society we spend about $1 billion each year to run CERN's Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, and up to $180 million on a single fighter jet," said McCouch.

Explore further: The origin of the language of life

Related Stories

Research identifies wild ancestor genes for crop improvement

Feb 22, 2011

Using the genetic variation found in wild and exotic rice species, researchers are providing breeders with genomics tools and knowledge to develop higher yielding, stress-tolerant varieties, a Cornell researcher reported ...

Breeder works to reduce aluminum toxicity in rice

May 08, 2012

(Phys.org) -- As rice farmers around the world begin to turn from wet paddies to dry fields in an attempt to conserve water and mitigate climate change, they are facing a new foe: aluminum.

US a surprisingly large reservoir of crop plant diversity

Apr 29, 2013

North America isn't known as a hotspot for crop plant diversity, yet a new inventory has uncovered nearly 4,600 wild relatives of crop plants in the United States, including close relatives of globally important ...

Recommended for you

The origin of the language of life

Dec 19, 2014

The genetic code is the universal language of life. It describes how information is encoded in the genetic material and is the same for all organisms from simple bacteria to animals to humans. However, the ...

Quest to unravel mysteries of our gene network

Dec 18, 2014

There are roughly 27,000 genes in the human body, all but a relative few of them connected through an intricate and complex network that plays a dominant role in shaping our physiological structure and functions.

EU court clears stem cell patenting

Dec 18, 2014

A human egg used to produce stem cells but unable to develop into a viable embryo can be patented, the European Court of Justice ruled on Thursday.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

geokstr
1 / 5 (2) Jul 06, 2013
Up next - Soylent Green.

Yummy with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.