June 25, 2013
YORK, United KingdomThe EU-funded ABSTRESS project will address the issue of crop failure due to climate change by developing tougher climate-resistant crops and focusing on faster plant breeding.
Recent studies show large-scale crop failures will become more common under climate change due to an increased frequency of extreme weather events, causing major issues and shortages within the food industry. Findings suggest adapting to these changes may be possible through crops that are more tolerant to heat and water stress, as well as socio-economic measures.
Experts agree that faster plant breeding is necessary to combat these potential issues, because if it takes 12 to 15 years to test and breed a new type, the environment will change by the time it is developed. Walter de Jong, associate professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, said, "A crop that grows well in an area today is unlikely to do as well in the same place in 2050."
To achieve its aim, the project is looking at legumes, a key group of crops that take nitrogen from the atmosphere and add it to the soil. Growing them reduces the need for nitrogenous fertilisers and saves costs on animal feed imports when grown domestically.
Researchers will subject a standard experimental plant, called barrel clover, or Medicago truncatula, to a challenge experiment." The plant will be exposed to bugs and various abiotic challenges, such as drought. The project scientists will then find out which genes the plant has turned on to help it survive, and in particular, the hub" genes that control the activity of the others.
Because the same hub genes are found across plant species, with only minor variation, this knowledge will allow other legume species to be improved by selecting for the same genes. Then, improved seeds from these species will be tested in field trials and crossed into commercial varieties of plants for commercial use. In the longer term, less closely-related crops, such as tomatoes and wheat, could also benefit.
De Jong points out that improving the actual crops we eat" remains a stubbornly slow process. The fundamental science community always underestimates how long it takes for new discoveries to be applied, because they dont understand the hurdles to bringing their ideas to fruition," he said.
Other observers agree that the priorities of the project are the right ones. Drought in particular is going to be a growing issue in parts of Europe," said John Spink, department head at Teagasc, an Irish agriculture and food development authority. He said it can take 50 years to transfer a gene for some desirable property, such as insect resistance, into a crop. Spink added that even if a new seed is found with good properties, there are still big hurdles to jump. The real difficulty is getting from the laboratory to the marketplace, which involves testing the new variety and building up stocks of seeds for sale.
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