New crops?

Image: Frank Vincentz/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Frank Vincentz/Wikimedia Commons.

Back at the UKPSF con­fer­ence, marker-assisted selec­tion (MAS) was explored by Ian Graham (Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, University of York) in con­sid­er­ing molecu­lar breed­ing in novel crops. MAS is based not on the observ­able traits them­selves – e.g. col­our – but the genes asso­ci­ated there­with. A MAS approach thus allows selec­tion of plants with desired char­ac­ter­ist­ics, and often far earlier than the trait itself may be observed (provided the mark­ers are known…). It can thus speed up breed­ing of ‘novel’ crops.

Amongst pro­jects Graham sum­mar­ised – such as devel­op­ment of anti-malarial artemisinin from Artemisia annua, and biod­iesel pro­duc­tion from Jatropha curcas – was men­tion of Stevia rebaudi­ana, which pro­duces ste­vi­os­ide, a glyc­os­ide up to 300 times sweeter than sucrose, but which is calorie-free. Graham also reminded us that in our search for ‘new’ crops, we shouldn’t ignore the exist­ing, but eas­ily over­looked so-called ‘orphan crops’: ‘crop spe­cies which have been under-exploited for their con­tri­bu­tion towards food secur­ity, health (nutritional/medicinal), income gen­er­a­tion and envir­on­mental effects’.

A timely – and hum­bling – plea to make more of what nat­ural vari­ety and vari­ation we already have.

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.