Education and Research of Plant Breeding for the 21st Century

General Perspective

Many jars on shelves in a seedbank.

A seed­bank of crop ger­mplasm: The ana­lysis of genetic vari­ation in ger­mplasm col­lec­tions gen­er­ates an added value for gene­banks, mak­ing this research a good invest­ment. In this way, gene­bank cur­at­ors can offer spe­cific acces­sions with desired traits to plant genet­i­cists and breed­ers, who can then select mater­i­als tailored to their object­ives and needs. Photo: Pat Heslop-Harrison.

During the 20th Century national, regional and inter­na­tional gene banks estab­lished major col­lec­tions for most crops to ensure the con­ser­va­tion of plant genetic resources. However, the use of this crop genetic endow­ment remains lim­ited due to the lack of sys­tem­atic research to provide a com­pre­hens­ive frame­work for the effi­cient iden­ti­fic­a­tion and intro­gres­sion of bene­fi­cial vari­ation for use in plant breed­ing. This needs to be achieved for both on-going pri­or­ity traits and for novel added-value traits. There are now oppor­tun­it­ies to develop new more effi­cient approaches for plant breed­ing because of the emer­gence of molecu­lar gen­omic tech­no­lo­gies and advances in com­pu­ta­tional sys­tems. The power of molecu­lar gen­om­ics will be fully real­ized when used in com­bin­a­tion with clas­sical quant­it­at­ive genet­ics to integ­rate and com­par­at­ively ana­lyze phen­o­typic, ped­i­gree, and gen­o­typic inform­a­tion for import­ant traits. When we teach plant breed­ing we should there­fore emphas­ize research and train­ing in the use of crop diversity: con­ser­va­tion and char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion, plus the devel­op­ment of meth­ods for increas­ing the pace and scope of impact from seed-embedded tech­no­lo­gies. This train­ing will require a broad range of part­ner­ships, which will facil­it­ate lever­aging of new resources to har­ness emer­ging knowledge.


The research agenda for hands-on train­ing in plant breed­ing should include from crop biod­iversity to bioin­form­at­ics with the main focus on ana­lysis of genetic diversity of crops as well as devel­op­ment of strategies for con­ser­va­tion and util­iz­a­tion of genetic resources in plant breed­ing, with breed­ing inform­at­ics as a primary sup­port­ive tool. Over the last cen­tury assess­ment of vari­ation in gene bank col­lec­tions, and research into breed­ing and selec­tion has led to a vast accu­mu­la­tion of both know­ledge and genetic resources. For example, many breed­ing pro­grams have col­lated extens­ive amounts of his­tor­ical phen­o­typic and gene­a­lo­gical inform­a­tion on their breed­ing lines and some have con­served seed from these lines. However, rarely has this phen­o­typic data, derived from many years of multi-environment tri­als, been prop­erly cur­ated and integ­rated with gen­o­type and site char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion data. The integ­ra­tion of inter­dis­cip­lin­ary inform­a­tion resources and a com­pre­hens­ive ger­mplasm col­lec­tion will facil­it­ate the devel­op­ment of a new paradigm of knowledge-led plant breed­ing in which defined gen­omic regions will be the tar­get for spe­cific manip­u­la­tion by plant breed­ing. Hence, all avail­able data although some­times patchy, can be used for ret­ro­spect­ive mod­el­ling to form the basis of devel­op­ing sim­u­la­tion tools to optim­ize the design of breed­ing and selec­tion sys­tems of ongo­ing breed­ing pro­grams. The main pil­lars for teach­ing plant breed­ing course(s) should be:

Crop Biodiversity: Conservation, char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion and know­ledge sharing

  • Developing evol­u­tion­ary approaches for safe and dynamic con­ser­va­tion of the world’s crop her­it­age for future gen­er­a­tions through fur­ther use in plant breeding
  • Exploring improved tech­niques for the con­ser­va­tion of plant genetic resources and the assess­ment of crop diversity
  • Understanding the rich genetic diversity of crops in the con­text of use in genetic enhance­ment, as the found­a­tion for the devel­op­ment of dynamic core selectors
  • Modeling genetic diversity in agri­cul­tural crop spe­cies and their wild rel­at­ives to determ­ine the extent of vari­ation, clus­ter­ing of ger­mplasm for sampling, and identi­fy­ing poten­tial areas for fur­ther search

Genetic Variation: Targeted access and effi­cient utilization

  • Exploiting the untapped value of crop genetic resources through dis­cov­ery of spe­cific, stra­tegic­ally import­ant traits required for cur­rent and future gen­er­a­tions of tar­get beneficiaries
  • Analyzing genetic vari­ation (includ­ing asso­ci­ation map­ping for gene dis­cov­ery and gene re-sequencing for allele min­ing) of tar­get traits in respect­ive genetic pools to facil­it­ate their fur­ther “smart” use in plant breeding
  • Assessing innov­at­ive crop genetic enhance­ment meth­ods that will lead to build­ing “stra­tegic ger­mplasm blocks” through the util­iz­a­tion of unused “exotic” variation
  • Finding eco-friendly bio-techniques that facil­it­ate the genetic manip­u­la­tion of plants

Breeding Informatics: Building a func­tional link between biod­iversity and plant breeding

  • Determining optimum use of molecu­lar, genetic, phen­o­typic and gene­a­lo­gical data for “min­ing” ger­mplasm collections
  • Turning data into know­ledge and skills by visu­al­iz­ing res­ults of whole crop gen­ome descrip­tion that will lead to a bet­ter under­stand­ing of gene × gen­o­type × envir­on­ment inter­ac­tions, of great use in plant breeding
  • Simulating knowledge-driven breed­ing approaches for assist­ing genetic enhance­ment pro­grams to choose the most appro­pri­ate par­ental gen­o­types, breed­ing sys­tems and selec­tion procedures
  • Participating in enhan­cing crop inform­a­tion sys­tems and inform­at­ics plat­forms through a hol­istic frame­work in which to ori­ent­ate the devel­op­ment of such tools, espe­cially to ensure over­all bio­lo­gical interpretations

Education … and Public Awareness

A group of people listening to a talk on crops.

Outreach and Education: Students should learn –through courses and research pro­jects– to model genetic diversity in agri­cul­tural crop plants and their wild rel­at­ives, for both in situ and ex situ con­ser­va­tion, as well as for the sus­tain­able use of genetic resources in crop improve­ment. They also need to acquire skills to make their case with the pub­lic and policy-makers to bring advances in Science for the bene­fit of humand­kind. Photo: Pat Heslop-Harrison.

We increas­ingly require pro­fes­sion­als with hol­istic inter­dis­cip­lin­ary skills to help advance crop improve­ment. Integrated system-oriented think­ing needs to be taught both at under­gradu­ate and gradu­ate levels. E-learning (through the use of web sys­tems) should also become avail­able as a sup­port­ive tool and reach stu­dents afar, espe­cially through inter­act­ive mod­ules allow­ing users to access know­ledge and self-assess their per­form­ance. Likewise, we need aware­ness mater­i­als to edu­cate and sens­it­ize the gen­eral pub­lic and policy-makers to the needs for con­ser­va­tion and sus­tain­able use of crop genetic resources through plant breed­ing. This may lead to mobil­iz­ing resources for large national, con­tin­ental and inter­na­tional research part­ner­ships with pub­lic and private sectors.

You can find out more about the research of the Department of Plant Breeding and Biotechnology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (in Swedish).

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  1. Rodomiro’s latest video: hear him talk­ing about Climate Change and Food Production to the Inter-American Development Bank TV

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