Superdomestication, feed-forward breeding and climate proofing crops

Drought, wind erosion, and overgrazing reduce crop production: breeding climate-proof varieties is needed. Rift Valley, Ethiopia, May 2012

Climate Proofing of Food Crops, through genetic improvement for adaptation, is an important, medium-term, objective to ensure food-security and increase production while enhancing the sustainability of agriculture. The IAEA has a Coordinated Research Project discussing this topic (archive version). In the YouTube video here, I discuss some of the challenges plant researchers are addressing, and review some of the collaborative work of our Molecular Cytogenetics group that relates to understanding crop evolution, measuring biodiversity, and exploiting and quantifying genetic diversity by hybridization, mapping, introgression, and cell fusion. References to our work in the general areas I am talking about are given at the bottom of this post. Please watch in HD high definition if your internet connection allows. The presentation can be viewed or downloaded from Slideshare (where there are hyper-links to some of the related publications); all my content is CC-BY so please feel free to use in your presentations and outputs with acknowledgement (EDIT Jan 2013: NC condition removed).

The video was originally uploaded in two parts, and the above is edited a little more. The conclusions section is here:

At some point, I will have another editing session since there are a few places with continuity errors, where the chromakey is not working or where I would like to change to images, so please link to this post rather than the YouTube – I will update the above links.

We all know that climate is climate change and its mitigation are critical: this was the top story on the IAEA homepage last month, reporting on a talk by Modibo Traore: he noted how we have the combination of climate change damaging soil and threatening agriculture as we practice it now, along with unprecedented numbers of people to feed (archive version).

Some of the challenges are summed up in the top photograph from south of Addis Abbaba in the the Rift Valley of Ethiopia. Drought and unpredictable climate prevent crops timely establishment of crops, and the consequences are exacerbated by overgrazing and collection of trees for fuelwood, themselves consequences of population growth, and all leading to loss of soil – seen in the dust storm on the left. In the background though, you can see the product of one of the huge natural resources of Ethiopia: carbon-free electricity from hydroelectric and geothermal sources, rather than nuclear, and certainly part of the solution to increased food production through fertilizer production. (Note added 10Dec12: see my comment below and for more about soil degradation.)

Clearly, both genetic and agronomic factors are critical to meeting the challenges, as will be discussed at the CRP coordinated research programme meeting. The homepage of the US government National Climatic Data Centre shows just one snapshot of one month, but can be used to illustrate what crops must be bred to face. In October 2012, uneven-ness and patchiness was emphasized: the over-exploited breadbasket of the USA is affected by cold, while the rest of the world and particularly the little-exploited bread-basket across South-west Asia is affected by heat.

Climate, of course, has never been stable, and it is interesting to take a long view, covering the period of modern humans . Agriculture is relatively recent in human history, having started about 10,000 years ago, while people have been essentially unchanged for much longer: 50 to 100,000 years.

By studying events that have happened previously, we can make suggestions about what can happen, or what we can achieve for example in terms of crop breeding, in the future. Here, we see that the birth of agriculture was preceded by a rapid period of global warming. While the exact challenges affecting the human population at this period are unclear, and were probably different around the world, many have a familiar sound to them: obviously, climate change, but also over-exploitation of wild species, human-driven habitat desclimatetruction (including by technological innovations), population increase, plant and animal diseases and even the wish to do something other than collect food, just as today most people worldwide would prefer to sit in an office rather than be out in the sun or rain hand-weeding their field.

A reference where we consider these points comes from:

Heslop-Harrison JS, Schwarzacher T. 2012. Genetics and genomics of crop domestication (author-print link; or Published version intranet) In: Plant Biotechnology and Agriculture: Prospects for the 21st century. Eds Arie Altman, Paul Michael Hasegawa pp 3-18.

–  in a volume edited by Arie Altman, a regular contributor to IAEA/FAO Genetics and Plant Breeding programme. We also review and reference some of the extensive literature on the numerous changes which were required from plants to make them suitable for domestication and agriculture. These are things like uniform seed germination, lack of seed dispersal, large harvestable parts, and a pleasant, nutritious product that make a plant worth growing as a crop. It is noteworthy though, and a point not always considered, that not only the genetics of the plants but also the knowledge and technology of the people has to change in association with the domestication of plants. Before agriculture, not only were there no suitable genotypes, but there were no ploughs, weeding, watering, harvesting, storage or transport technologies, and no fields.

In this talk, then, we are reviewing some of the recent work we have been involved in, with collaborators from many countries. We are of course very keen to develop additional partnerships with you, particularly for work with the target crops. Our work involves a wide range of crops, and our laboratory has a range of approaches to understanding genome evolution at the large scale, and in the measurement and exploitation of biodiversity, using molecular and cytogenetic approaches. We work with partners with complementary skills. I briefly highlight some of the work which we will be advancing towards publication during 2013, or has recently been published. Additional information about our work, and citations to the individual manuscripts, in given on our website; many publications can be downloaded, sometimes requiring the pw/userid ‘visitor’.

Titles of all our papers:

Abstracts of 2012 papers onwards: (includes banana sequence, Lolium fine mapping of biomass traits, some superdomestication thoughts, genome organization etc.)

Peanut/Arachis work here in 2012 abstract:

Background to Panicum work: and others from Harriet Hunt:

Duncan Vaughan and superdomestication concept:

Abstracts of 2011 and earlier are here: (includes Nicotiana, wheat-aliens, and more about the Lolium and superdomestication traits). Many papers have links to author-prints, journals or full-text needing ‘visitor’ as user&password.

IAEA has some excellent YouTube videos on their genetics and plant breeding programme: see here

Slideshare has the Powerpoints in a downloadable format.

Content is CC-By so please feel free to reuse!

Revised video uploaded 17 Dec 2012

EDIT Jan 2013: NC condition removed: you can sell the presentation — good luck, although I doubt that will be much of a get-rich-quick scheme!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Dr Ijaz Rasool Noorka says:

    It is very nice, definitely world needs it in depth. I congratulate you to initiate a burning issue of today agriculture and allied sciences to ensure food security

  2. Tahira says:

    Dear Pat Heslop-Harrison,
    it is fantastic idea u have discussed, future climate certainly will effect, so life will go on or can be saved if climate proof crops will be introduced,
    m really impressed,
    Tahira Jatt

  3. Supporting my comments about erosion and deforestation, there is an interesting report of Bianca Jagger’s work in this area at
    “environmentalists have long campaigned over the pollution of the earth’s air and water, its changing climate and its disappearing wildlife, they have remained pretty silent about the state of its soil. Yet all terrestrial life depends on a thin layer of earth, normally just six to 10 inches thick, for survival – and the world loses at least 30 billion tons of it a year, mostly from the drylands that provide nearly half of the world’s food. … About a quarter of the earth’s agricultural land is already degraded, mainly through overuse or the cutting down of the trees that protect it and help rainfall percolate into the ground. As the soil erodes away, tensions rise: four fifths of the planet’s recent conflicts are in the drylands … Yet this is one environmental crisis that is quickly reversible. Scientific surveys have identified two billion hectares of degraded and deforested land worldwide – an area the size of South America – that can be restored to productive life.”

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