Adam Famoso and Susan McCouch

LSU AgCenter plant breeder Adam Famoso, left, and Susan McCouch examine Famoso’s rice crosses in a greenhouse at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station. (Photo by Bruce Schultz, LSU AgCenter)

Plant breeding, digital science - meeting world food demand

Researchers should be integrating information science with applied plant breeding to serve a growing world population, a leading plant geneticist said during a Sept. 24 plant biology symposium.

It’s a “global grand challenge” that must address population and income increases, land and water concerns, changing climate, nutrition, health and biodiversity and overall sustainability, said Susan McCouch of Cornell University.

A professor of plant breeding and genetics, plant biology, biological statistics and computational biology, McCouch said the process should include computer-based data gathering, model building and validation along with traditional plant breeding.

McCouch’s talk followed a morning of short presentations by faculty members and graduate students in the LSU AgCenter and LSU sponsored by the Center of Research Excellence in Plant Biotechnology and Crop Development.

The center includes researchers from various departments in the LSU AgCenter, LSU A&M and other state universities, said Mike Stout, L.D. Newsom Professor in Integrated Pest Management in the AgCenter Department of Entomology.

The symposium is part of the collaboration between AgCenter and A&M campus faculty members to produce solutions for the challenges to agriculture, Stout said.

“We’re increasing cooperation in all biosciences across all Louisiana universities,” he said.

McCouch called on the researchers to develop models that integrate digital information with physical information to predict performance in new plant lines.

“Fundamental problems don’t change at all, but they can be addressed through new technology,” she said. “Nobody can do it alone. It takes a lot of collaboration.”

Susan McCouch of Cornell University, left, examines work being done by LSU AgCenter researchers Herry Utomo, center, and Ida Wenefrida in a laboratory at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station. (Photo by Bruce Schultz, LSU AgCenter)
Susan McCouch of Cornell University, left, examines work being done by LSU AgCenter researchers Herry Utomo, center, and Ida Wenefrida in a laboratory at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station. (Photo by Bruce Schultz, LSU AgCenter)

McCouch visited the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station near Crowley and spoke to the station faculty.

Adam Famoso, an AgCenter rice breeder who worked with McCouch at Cornell, said she developed the first genetic map of rice DNA. “She has really pioneered the marker technology.”

McCouch said information technology capable of handling huge volumes of data is needed to process information in order to make predictions that can be used by breeders to make successful crosses.

Technology exists that allows editing of a plant’s genetic structure to improve its agronomic traits, she said. It is not considered genetic engineering because it does not involve the introduction of foreign genetic material into a plant’s DNA.

“We’re anticipating in 15 years, this will be mainstream,” she said.

Much of McCouch’s work at Cornell has been focused on rice in Southeast Asia and Africa, but she said she would like to develop relationships with U.S. public universities to pass along her work. “Much of what we have developed is ripe for the picking,” she said.

The use of genetic marker technology by plant breeders will be needed to meet the increasing demand for more food and the limited arable acreage in developing countries, McCouch said. Abundant land and water in the U.S. will allow American farmers to produce more food for export to countries where agricultural systems do not produce enough for growing populations.

Several of McCouch’s projects, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, address problems in third-world countries. For example, one project is aimed at developing drought-resistant rice in India, where water sources are often unreliable. Another project’s goal is overcoming iron toxicity of rice in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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