Breeding info

Getting the new issue of CropBiotech Update in my inbox today, and noticing at least a couple of crop improvement items I would like to blog about at some stage, prompted a reflection on sources of information on the use of agricultural biodiversity in breeding.

Produced by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), you can get CropBiotech Update delivered by email once a week or check out the website here (where you can subscribe to an RSS feed or sign up for the email alerts). FAO also has a news service in biotechnology, which you can check out here. You can sign up for monthly email alerts, but I couldn’t see any RSS feeds, unfortunately.

Somewhat broader than either of these, but with some overlap, is Plant Breeding News, sponsored by FAO and Cornell University. You can sign up to the email alerts, consult the archives and learn how to contribute here. BIO-IPR is an irregular listserver produced by GRAIN. It focuses on PGR policy issues, and you can find out more about it here.

Finally, I just wanted to mention an example of a national-level agricultural research newsletter which provides information on breeding programmes, DIDINET News from the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Papua New Guinea. DIDINET stands for “Didiman/Didimeri Network” or a network for scientists and other stakeholders in the agriculture sector. There must be lots of other examples of such national newsletters. I wonder if someone has compiled a list.

And of course I haven’t mentioned the various ways the CGIAR Centres disseminate information about crop breeding, such as this one, for example. But maybe Jeremy will say something about that. He knows more about it than I do.

Accidental cross reveals salt-tolerant wheat genes

Scientists at the Australian CSIRO Plant Industry (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) have discovered two genes, called Nax1 and Nax2, that could be used to develop salt-tolerant wheats. Nax1 exudes sodium (Na, geddit?) from the leaves while Nax2 excludes it from the roots. The two genes appear to come from an ancient type of wheat, Triticum monococcum, that was accidentally crossed into a modern durum wheat line about 35 years ago. Rana Munns, the team leader, said the discovery was an amazing stroke of luck.

We screened a hundred durum wheats from the Australian Winter Cereals Collection at Tamworth, which contains tens of thousands of wheat types. Highlighting the fact that the science of plant breeding sometimes relies on an element of good fortune, we were lucky to find the durum variety with the ancient genes straight away, otherwise we might have been looking for years.

The search was motivated by the knowledge that 6% of the world’s arable areas are affected by salinity.

Personally, of course, I’d like to know more about that accidental cross that put T. monococcum genes into a modern bread wheat, but details are not forthcoming.

Article: Physiological Characterisation of Two Genes for Na+ Exclusion in Durum Wheat: Nax1 and Nax2.

The diverse crops of Kenya

I’ll be away for about a week so blogging might be a bit light, but I couldn’t resist mentioning the following four stories that were in the print edition of the Daily Nation this morning before leaving:

  1. A new climbing bean variety developed by the University of Nairobi and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute has been released and will be ready for commercial production by June.
  2. Coconut vendors in Mombasa are set to have access to a new technology (developed by FAO in collaboration with the Intermediate Technology Development Institute) for keeping coconut juice fresh for up to 3 weeks.
  3. The vice-chairman of the Rift Valley branch of the Kenya Horticultural Society asked local universities to start breeding new flower varieties rather than using material from the Netherlands and Israel.
  4. A group of Nyeri farmers have started selling their coffee directly to international dealers rather than through the traditional central auction system.

I thought the range of these articles really gave an good impression of the great variety of Kenyan agriculture and agricultural research.

See you again soon…

What does Africa need (or want?)

On the one hand, you’ve got your Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pumping money into two international agricultural research centres to improve the yield of drought-stressed maize. On the other, you’ve got your ungrateful African civil society organisations declaring that these efforts and others like them “under-represent the real achievements in productivity through traditional methods, and will fail to address the real causes of hunger in Africa”. The truth, obviously, lies somewhere in-between. Is it too sappy to expect the Gates money to flow at least partly into researching traditional methods and agricultural biodiversity? Is it too sappy to expect the civil society organisations to curb their knee-jerk reaction against all modern science and economics?

Still, at least the Gates Foundations isn’t DuPont, telling the World Economic forum of the importance of private-public partnerships (code, I think, for government-subsidized research) to promote hybrid seeds.

Boosting the Indian rice crop

A report in The Hindu says that scientists in the Indian state of Kerala want to increase the production of rice. Nothing special there. But the report does single out the need for “efforts on a fast track to survey, identify, catalogue and conserve all traditional plant varieties of rice as part of the measures to increase productivity”. Of course it does not say exactly how that knowledge will be used to breed better rice. But another paper at the Kerala Science Congress “Biodiversity of rice in Kerala” said that many of the traditional rice varieties offered a pool of resistant genes against insect pests. And a team of Kerala Agriculture University scientists, in its paper on the “Scope of crop diversification,” called for rice-based integrated farming system.