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

July 5, 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: Research identifies wild ancestor genes for crop improvement

Related Stories

Research identifies wild ancestor genes for crop improvement

February 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 ...

Largest rice genetics study finds vast differences in rice

September 15, 2011

The largest publicly available genomewide association mapping study in rice to date has found that although the five subpopulations of Asian rice -- indica, aus, temperate japonica, aromatic and tropical japonica -- all belong ...

Breeder works to reduce aluminum toxicity in rice

May 8, 2012

( -- 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

April 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 food crops ...

Recommended for you

A better way to read the genome

October 9, 2015

UConn researchers have sequenced the RNA of the most complicated gene known in nature, using a hand-held sequencer no bigger than a cell phone.

Threat posed by 'pollen thief' bees uncovered

October 9, 2015

A new University of Stirling study has uncovered the secrets of 'pollen thief' bees - which take pollen from flowers but fail to act as effective pollinators - and the threat they pose to certain plant species.

Most EU nations seek to bar GM crops

October 4, 2015

Nineteen of the 28 EU member states have applied to keep genetically modified crops out of all or part of their territory, the bloc's executive arm said Sunday, the deadline for opting out of new European legislation on GM ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

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.