Asexual reproduction could bring massive change in crop development

The quest to focus on asexual plant reproduction, or apomixis, is creating new research opportunities in plant sciences at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I came here focused on apomixis, but now we’re branching off and applying these technologies to other plants,” said Tim Sharbel, director of the seed and development biology program at the Global Institute for Food Security.

“We’re still going hard and strong on the apomixis story, but we’re branching out and networking with everyone on campus and using our expertise that we brought here,” said Sharbel at an event that was part of Global Biotech Week in Saskatoon..

The Global Institute for Food Security recruited Sharbel in 2015 as its first research leader, an internationally known plant scientist from Germany whose research into a cost-effective way to produce seeds without pollination could help combat global hunger.

“We’ve had to develop these analytical methods to approach the problem of apomixis, but in doing so we’ve been developing technologies to study things like pollen formation, fertilization, seed size variation, endosperm production,” said Sharbel.

“I’m interested in lentil and chickpea now because these are core species being worked on here. Very little is known about their reproductive biology. So even without thinking about apomixis at all, what we are helping to do is to understand some of the hurdles that people have breeding lentil and chickpea.”

Apomixis is where the female plant produces an egg cell, which has the same number of chromosomes as itself. This egg cell will naturally develop without any fertilization from a male and it will develop into a genetic clone of that plant.

Sharbel’s research team studies a large number of species that reproduce this way naturally, which include rockcress (a wild relative of brassica), St. John’s wort, Kentucky bluegrass and buttercups.

“The whole idea behind apomixis is if we could turn sex off, then the plants can reproduce clonally from then on. So, it’s a very powerful technique or tool that we could use in agriculture if we could in fact get it to work,” he said.

However, it’s a complicated process requiring a large team of research specialists developing new strains over a 10 to 15 year time period, which involves generating the data to create the plants, breeding the plants and then multiplying the seed.

One example is niche-breeding wheat and then comparing them genetically to identify the genes behind tolerance to drought or excess moisture.

“You take the seeds produced by those things and put them under different selective regimes. In this case you plant them out in a dry environment and wet environment and you see what grows best. Then once you identify a plant that grows really well in this environment and significantly better than a normal environment, well you don’t care about the genetics at all. You can just turn off sex and take that plant to the field to generate more seeds,” he said.

“So the importance of this tool is the fact that it would simplify a lot of things.”

If it works, the payoff could spur an agricultural revolution when engineered into crops. Farmers could possibly save and reuse their hybrid seed without losing hybrid vigour because each seed is a clone of the parent plant.

“If we had apomixis, well you could cross anything. You could take two different species and cross them and then you let … sex work for you to generate all this genetic variation.”

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