News / Science & Technology

Plant Scientists Fight Hunger Through Genetics

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

Multimedia

TEXT SIZE - +

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

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians More

Abdullah Holds Lead in Afghan Presidential Election

Country's Election Commission says that with half of the ballots counted, former FM remains in the lead with 44 percent of the vote More

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites 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.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid