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

Multimedia Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests

Unlike Arab Spring uprisings, pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong aren't relying on Twitter and Facebook to organize, but social media still plays a role More

Analysis: Occupy Central Not Exactly Hong Kong’s Tiananmen

VOA's former Hong Kong, Beijing correspondent compares and contrasts 1989 Tiananmen Square protest with what is now happening in Hong Kong More

Bambari Hospital a Lone Place of Help in Violence-Plagued CAR

Only establishment still functioning in CAR's second city is main hospital 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.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid