The National Science Foundation in the US has announced grants totaling US$14 million for genome studies of “economically important plants”. Among the many projects will be one on red rice (seen left, photo courtesy of Washington University St Louis), a weedy variant that contaminates rice fields in the US. It reduces yields by up to 80% and researchers hope to discover whether it originated from cultivated rice or was imported, possibly accidentally, as a weed from Asia. A similar study will focus on weedy versions of radish. This could lead to a deeper understanding of just what makes some populations weedy and invasiveness, and hence to better control. One the other hand, maybe they should just develop a local market for red rice.
Other studies will look at genetic variation within cultivars of maize and pine trees and at the evolution of Brassicas, a highly diverse group. One can only hope that the information gathered will also help farmers and scientists to produce better adapted varieties for their own conditions, even if those conditions are far removed from the intensive agricultural fields of the US.
There’s a new book out on “chia,” Salvia hispanica, a “forgotten crop of the Aztecs.” I haven’t seen it, but it seems pretty comprehensive. There’s a review here. Chia is interesting among other reasons because although a good source of omega-3 fatty acid it doesn’t give off a “fishy” flavour.
A CIRAD project is using both somatic cloning and in situ approaches to conserve genetic resources of various threatened useful wild animals (including livestock relatives) in the highands of Vietnam. GIS is also being used to map genetic diversity as measured by molecular markers. The results will be extended to prepare a conservation strategy for the region as a whole.
CIRAD, the French agriculture research organisation, reports on efforts to make cocoa a more sustainable crop. Using a network that spanned 35 institutes in five African countries, the researchers studied cropping systems, participatory breeding (especially for pest and disease resistance), soil fertility and plant health. Results appear to be encouraging, especially growing the cocoa trees under a shade canopy and interplanting with other high-value crops. Both techniques improve local biodiversity and give farmers additional sources of income.
Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley are working with samples from the Venice Museum of Natural History to create a DNA database of some 6000 different species. A press release from UC Berkeley gives more details of the project, which will zero in on a small portion of non-coding ribosomal DNA that is known to be unique to each species. The database will allow researchers to identify fungi conclusively without having to wait for them to fruit, an erratic process that can be subject to delays. This could help scientists to respond more rapidly to the global spread of some fungal pathogens. It will also be useful for taxonomic studies.