News / Science & Technology

Plant Scientists Fight Hunger Through Genetics

Plant Scientists Fight Hunger Through Genetics
Plant Scientists Fight Hunger Through Genetics

Multimedia

Researchers are using the latest tools in genetics to help give farmers an edge in the race to feed the planet.

Food prices have been climbing in recent months because of bad weather in several major agricultural regions. Experts expect more extreme weather as the climate changes, threatening food supplies around the world. Farmers must also deal with the constant threats of insect pests, weeds, and diseases.

Using genetic markers, plant breeders like the University of Maryland's Jose Costa are improving crops with greater precision and accuracy than ever before.

Costa is working to protect farmers from a fungal disease called wheat scab that infected half the crop last year.

Poison grains

As he pours healthy and infected seeds into metal pans at his laboratory at the university's College Park campus, the effect of the disease is plain to see. The scabby seeds are white-ish, even pink in some spots, and they're ragged-looking next to the healthy wheat grains.

But beyond deforming the seeds, the fungus causes a much more serious problem.

"It causes vomiting in humans," Costa says. "So, we don't really want that in our bread or cookies."

But just like some people don't get sick as often as others, some varieties of wheat are less likely to get scab. Costa has one such variety from China growing in an incubator downstairs from his lab.

One in a thousand

The challenge, Costa says, is to mate a local wheat variety that produces a lot of grain but is susceptible to scab with the Chinese variety that is resistant to scab -- but doesn't produce as much.

"One or two plants in a thousand [will] carry the right combination of genes," he says.

Recent advances in genetics make the job of combining those genes easier.

Scientists are mapping the entire genetic code of wheat. They've already figured out the location of some of the key genes, including those for scab resistance and productivity. And to locate them quickly, they've found small stretches of DNA called markers.

Genetic landmarks

"Just like in real life you would use a landmark when you give directions, we use markers," says graduate student Lydia Cardwell.

Scientists mate the wheat plant from Maryland with the one from China by cross-pollinating them.

Until recently, finding that one-in-a-thousand offspring that is both resistant and productive meant growing lots of plants to maturity in big test plots.

Now, they grow young plants in a room-sized incubator. They extract genetic material from a small piece of leaf to look for the markers that will identify the scab resistant, productive offspring.

It takes far less space and it's far more accurate, Costa says. Out in the field, some plants just get lucky and escape infection even though they're susceptible to the disease.

"You don't know if they're resistant, or if they [just] escaped the disease," Costa says. "With markers, now we can tell if they do have the genes or not."

Tool for improving many crops

Plant breeders are using markers to improve many different crops.

"They're making combinations of genes possible that simply would have been impossible in the past," says Erik Legg, lead researcher with major global agriculture company Syngenta.

Syngenta is developing maize that tolerates both drought and flood. At least 15 genes are involved. Legg says planting enough maize to find that extremely unlikely combination of genes would be a challenge, to say the least.

"It's been estimated that stacking together 15 or more genes of interest through traditional breeding would take probably more arable land than is available on Earth," he says.

This advance in breeding comes at an important time. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that food production will need to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing population. Meanwhile, climate change threatens food production in many parts of the world. Wheat scientist Jose Costa says breeders will need all the help they can get.

"Well, we don't know if it's going to be enough," he says. "It's the best we can do at this time. But it gives us a lot more weapons than what we had before."

 

You May Like

Hong Kong Democracy Calls Spread to Macau

Macau and Hong Kong are China’s two 'special administrative regions' which gives them a measure of autonomy More

After Nearly 2 Years, Pistorius Remains Elusive

Reporter Anita Powell reflects on her experience covering the Olympic athlete's murder trial More

Kenyan Coastal Town Struggles With Deadly June Attacks

Three months after al-Shabab militants allegedly attacked their town, some Mpeketoni residents are still bitter, question who was really behind the assaults More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Obama to Ramp Up Anti-Ebola Efforts in Africai
X
Luis Ramirez
September 15, 2014 11:01 PM
President Barack Obama on Tuesday will unveil his plan to ramp up efforts against the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Obama to Ramp Up Anti-Ebola Efforts in Africa

President Barack Obama on Tuesday will unveil his plan to ramp up efforts against the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid