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.

Research

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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