To ensure a plentiful food supply in the face of future climate-related challenges, scientists must diversify food crops by domesticating new species. Early farmers domesticated many annual plant species, those planted yearly, in part due to their quick growing cycles; however, these crops require agricultural practices that can harm the soil. Perennial crops, which live for multiple years, develop persistent root systems that stabilize soil, offering a more sustainable option. The challenge is that successfully and rapidly domesticating promising perennial crops relies on genetic screening of seeds, an expensive and time-consuming process, especially for underdeveloped species that lack genomic resources. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) is providing a $999,957 Seeding Solutions grant to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to accelerate the development of perennial crops. The researchers are predicting breeding success based on the seedlings’ physical attributes.
The Danforth Center, Danforth Center Field Research Site at Planthaven Farms, The Land Institute, Perennial Agriculture Project and Saint Louis University are providing matching funds for a total $2,543,829 investment.
“There are thousands of underutilized perennial crops that have the potential to ensure global food security while protecting the environment,” said Dr. Jeff Rosichan, director of FFAR’s Crops of the Future Collaborative. “By developing efficient and cost-effective methods to enhance and domesticate these crops, this research lowers the cost of the seed and economic risk associated with growing new crops, putting them within farmers’ reach.”
Perennial crops have large root systems that access deep water in the ground, reduce erosion, regenerate soil and provide multi-year harvests. These crops are highly advantageous for farmers. However, perennials often take longer to reach reproductive maturity than annuals, which slows the rate of crop improvement and domestication. Without knowing which plants will have agricultural advantages such as high yield, breeders must grow all seedlings to maturity, then select those with beneficial traits. To speed up this process and reduce resources spent on plants that ultimately will be discarded, breeders can genotype seeds—analyze individual plants’ DNA—and then select the desirable seeds to grow.
Genotyping thousands of seeds can be prohibitively expensive for many perennials that have large and/or complex genomes, making the process difficult. Preliminary research indicates that phenotyping plant seedlings—determining whether mature crops will have desired traits based on physical characteristics of the seedlings—is an alternate method of selecting superior plants for breeding.
Danforth Center researchers led by Dr. Allison Miller and Dr. Matthew Rubin, together with researcher partners at The Land Institute (Salina, KS), Kansas State University (Manhattan, KS) and INIFAP (Mexico), are studying phenotyping techniques to improve their accuracy and usefulness as a fast, economical alternative to genotyping. The researchers are comparing phenotyping and genotyping techniques by using these methods on the perennial crop intermediate wheatgrass. They are also comparing different phenotyping techniques to determine those that can produce data complex enough to rival genotyping.
Finally, the team is further expanding breeders’ phenotyping abilities by establishing which early-life traits in seedlings can reliably correspond to desired traits in mature plants, determining which other seedling traits not already used in phenotyping that can be helpful for predicting mature traits and identifying affordable robotics that can help phenotype on a large scale.
“Recent advances in plant phenotyping and image analysis offer unprecedented opportunities to characterize seedlings under controlled conditions,” said Miller, lead Principal Investigator of the project. “These early life-stage observations have the potential to predict agriculturally and ecologically important features of plants expressed years later, in the field. This approach could drastically alter the speed of domestication in perennial species, as well as diversify the number of perennial species entering the domestication pipeline.”
Seeding Solutions is FFAR’s annual competitive grant program that supports bold research in any of our Challenge Areas or builds bridges between different agricultural fields. FFAR supports innovative projects that address challenges in food supply and agroecosystem management through novel partnerships. Such collaborations provide opportunities to engage stakeholders as integral members of the research team and increase the likelihood of a project’s application beyond its scope.