Perennial-crop development accelerates
To accelerate the development of perennial crops the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research is providing about a $1-million grant to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. There are thousands of underutilized perennial crops with the potential to ensure global food security while protecting the environment, said Jeff Rosichan, director of the foundation’s Crops of the Future Collaborative.
“By developing efficient and cost-effective methods to enhance and domesticate those crops, the research reduces the cost of the seed and economic risk associated with growing new crops, putting them within farmers’ reach,” he said. Perennial crops have large root systems that access deep water in the ground, reduce erosion, regenerate soil and provide multi-year harvests. But perennials often take longer to reach reproductive maturity than annuals, which slows the rate of crop improvement and domestication.
Without knowing which plants have advantages such as the greatest yield, breeders must grow all seedlings to maturity and then select those with beneficial traits. To hasten the process and reduce resources spent on plants that ultimately will be discarded, breeders can genotype seeds and then select desirable seeds to grow.
Genotyping thousands of seeds can be prohibitively expensive for many perennials that have large or complex genomes. 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 Allison Miller and Matthew Rubin, together with research partners at The Land Institute, Kansas State University, and Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agricultural and Livestock Research 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 the methods on intermediate wheatgrass. They’re also comparing different phenotyping techniques to determine which ones can produce data complex enough to rival genotyping.
The researchers are further expanding breeders’ phenotyping abilities by establishing which early-life traits in seedlings can reliably correspond to desired traits in mature plants. They’ll also work on determining other seedling traits not already used in phenotyping that can help predict mature traits. And they plan to identify affordable robotics that can support large-scale phenotyping.
“Recent advances in plant phenotyping and image analysis offer opportunities to characterize seedlings in controlled conditions,” said Miller, the project’s lead investigator. “Early life-stage observations have the potential to predict agriculturally and ecologically important features of plants expressed years later in the field. The approach could drastically alter the speed of domestication in perennial species as well as diversify the number of perennial species entering the domestication pipeline.”
The Danforth Center, the Danforth Center Field Research Site at Planthaven Farms, The Land Institute, the Perennial Agriculture Project and Saint Louis University are providing matching funds for a total investment of more than $2.5 million. Visit foundationfar.org and search for “seeding solutions” for more information.