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Utilizing plant genetic resources to identify useful traits

October 31, 2011

The work of plant breeders has enabled the production of high-yielding crops; some are resistant to certain diseases or adapted to particular environments, but new diseases emerge and climates change. The work of plant breeders is therefore constantly evolving, and alleles to tackle production challenges need to be identified. This was the issue addressed in a seminar by Michael Mackay, currently a Senior Scientist at Bioversity and formerly Curator of the Australian Winter Cereals Collection, on 14 October 2011, entitled “More effective utilization of plant genetic resources for plant breeding”.

There is a huge amount of variability in wheat collections, and they may contain traits which are useful for plant breeding, but Mackay pointed out that identifying the accessions which have these traits is somewhat akin to “searching for a needle in a haystack.” However, it may be possible to use “environmental sieves” to identify these accessions, said Mackay.

This would be one way of using genetic resources more effectively. According to Mackay: “Recent studies show that distribution of trait variation is not random; there are relationships between traits and environments; statistics and modern techniques provide effective means to target ‘best bet’ accessions; and online tools to facilitate this type of modeling are required to reduce the ‘diagnosis’ time.” The Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy (FIGS) project is currently working on using climatic data in geographic information systems to investigate trait-by-environment relationships to identify useful accessions currently held within ex-situ genebanks worldwide.

With so much data, a smart system is needed to bring the information together and to build a dynamic interface between data providers and users. It is possible that the Genesys portal, “Gateway to genetic resources”, could be used as a kind of hub, enabling more of a service approach for the use of plant genetic resources, said Mackay.