Feeding the World Without Genetic Engineering?

K-State Professor, colleague working on new technology.

The work of a Kansas State University professor challenges the assumption that genetically engineered plants are the great scientific and technological revolution in agriculture and the only efficient and cheap way to feed a growing population.

Jianming Yu, an assistant professor of agronomy, is teaming with Rex Bernardo, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota, on research with marker-assisted selection. This agricultural technology offers a sophisticated method to greatly accelerate classical breeding through genetic analysis and selection of existing natural diversity in various crops without having to resort to alien species. Currently, marker-assisted selection has been a routine in many private seed companies with large-scale fingerprinting, global germplasm assessment and comprehensive bioinformatics support.

Yu's and Bernardo's research is focused on breeding methodology, finding more efficient ways to breed better varieties of corn, sorghum, wheat or barley that yield higher, require less irrigation and are resistant to diseases in farmers' fields. The pair's work was recently published in an edition of the scientific journal Crop Science.

"With abundant molecular markers that can be routinely processed with modern genomic technology, we found it is more efficient to focus on selection based information all across the genome rather than the traditional way of genomic regions containing signals that pass a threshold," Yu says.

Their research is "a result of our constant deliberation of how to incorporate modern genomic technologies into breeding process, a more general term as genomic-assisted plant breeding, which differs from what scientists have been doing -- using markers to guide the introgression of single or multiple disease resistance genes," Yu adds.

"The traditional way is to identify genome regions that show significant information," he says. "The new way is to consider all information genomewide. In other words, we strategically shifted the focus from finding the most interesting genome areas to considering all information simultaneously. This is critical, especially given that most of traits with agricultural importance are controlled by many interacting genomic regions and their individual effects are relatively small."

Yu and Bernardo plan to conduct experiments with sorghum in Kansas and maize in Minnesota.

"It will provide breeders, public or private, a powerful tool to advance their breeding practices," Yu says.

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