Genetic diversity for modern breeds
An article by Professor Jochen C. Reif, Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK)
Gene banks contain the genome of old crop types and the wild species related to them. They constitute a unique treasure trove of genetic diversity. It is widely believed that old crop varieties are less prone to extreme weather and more resistant to pests than their modern counterparts. Unfortunately, this is true only in certain cases. There are good reasons why old varieties are no longer extensively cultivated.
In most cases, they offer not only beneficial properties, but also have many unfavourable genetic characteristics. Nonetheless, it is for example important to strengthen the immune system of plants that have been bred to produce particularly high yields so that they become less dependent on pesticides in the longer term. The immune system of wheat plants for instance should be made less susceptible to yellow rust so that the crops do not need to be treated with chemical agents to combat harmful fungal infection.
Breeding informatics is the key to success
Crop plant research involves searching the gene banks for the genetic diversity that has been lost in modern high-yield varieties. We comb through huge collections of data, looking for specific characteristics – such as long-term resistance to plant diseases.
However, individual characteristics often evolve as the result of many different genes, all of which contribute just a small part to the development of the characteristic in question. Our ability to track down the relevant genes is only possible thanks to rapid advances in sequencing, i.e. mapping of the sequence of the individual genetic components, and in breeding informatics. This means that genetic codes can be scanned ever more quickly and cheaply, and valuable diversity can be identified using algorithms. In the coming years, breeding informatics can be expected to profit increasingly from innovations in artificial intelligence, allowing us to fundamentally expand our knowledge of plant defences.
Progress supported by public funding
Once valuable genes have been identified, the next step is to transfer them into modern plant production by developing new varieties. This is also a tricky and time-consuming process because the beneficial genetic traits that we wish to extract are often tightly interwoven with unfavourable genes.
Breeding informatics also offers effective methods of transferring the valuable genetic variations. That said, the procedure is laborious and nearly impossible without public funding. In rolling out long-term funding programmes, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture are setting standards that can hopefully be built upon in the future.
The conflicting demands for per-acre yields and biodiversity
Intensive farming is thought to be primarily responsible for the decline in species diversity. Yet we need to achieve higher per-acreage yields if we are to ensure a sufficient supply of food for a constantly growing global population. This conflicts with our desire to promote biodiversity at the same time.
Plant breeding and breeding informatics provide vital solutions that will allow us to include varieties in future plant production with a view to guaranteeing a sustainable food supply while fostering valuable diversity among crop plants.