‘Game changing’ breeding nears

Crop breeding’s holy grail | Pollination would no longer be required in seed production

Scientists are making strides on the “holy grail” of crop breeding and canola is the crop where the new technology is the most advanced.

“This would be the single biggest revolutionary change created by biotechnology for crops,” said Paul Arnison, president of Botanical Alternatives Inc., an agricultural biotechnology consulting firm.

The technology centres on a process known as apomixis, where the female reproductive system of certain plants occasionally produces seed without pollination.

Scientists have known about the process since the dawn of crop breeding but they haven’t been able to get a handle on it until recently, said Wilf Keller, president of Ag-West Bio Inc.

“It has been too hard to manage and understand but now with whole genomic sequencing we can maybe get at those complex genes that trigger the process,” he said.

“It could revolutionize the way we develop hybrid vigour.”

That’s because pollination would no longer be required in the seed production process.

Arnison said Tim Sharbel, a Canadian researcher working for a German plant genetics company, has made huge strides in understanding how the apomixtic process works in canola.

“He has discovered how it works in brassica and there’s only two genes that seem to be involved,” he said.

Arnison figures it is only a matter of two or three years before Sharbel has a good enough grasp of the genes and how the whole process works that the trait can be moved into the commercialization phase of crop development.

Once that happens, the crop breeding world will be turned on its head.

“This is what we call game changing technology. It changes the way that hybrid seed can be made,” said Arnison.

The biggest benefit is that it would allow seed technology companies to create hybrids in crops where today’s technology has proven too difficult and costly.

Hybrids are easier to produce in cross-pollinating crops like corn and canola than self-pollinating crops like wheat.

Apomixis would level the playing field because it would eliminate the need for pollination.

“It would almost be like the holy grail of plant breeding,” said Keller.

“We have a lot of species like lentils, peas, oats and wheat where we can’t make hybrids in those. Using this process we might be able to.”

Farmers would be able to save their hybrid seed, plant it the following year and get the same agronomic performance out of their farm-saved seed.

Arnison said seed technology companies are excited about apomixis despite the potential for lost sales due to farm saved seed.

“It doesn’t necessarily undermine their business at all. It may make their business even more profitable,” he said. “I can assure you that the big multinational seed companies like (DuPont) Pioneer are working on apomixis.”

One major advantage for seed companies is that they will be able to transfer the risk of hybrid seed production to farmers in addition to charging them an annual fee to use their licensed technology.

And it’s not like hybrid seed sales will dry up. Most farmers won’t save hybrid seed forever because companies will be constantly coming out with improved varieties.

“The number of hybrids that will become available will greatly increase because it’s so much easier to keep them and make them,” said Arnison.

So what does the farmer get?

There will be more companies producing more hybrids and getting them to market sooner than they are today.

And there is the possibility that growers will get varieties that are better suited for their particular area because it will be easier to produce specialty hybrids.

“It’s just an extremely useful new technology,” said Arnison.

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