Plant breeders urged to use genomics to fast-track development of crops with superior traits

November 19, 2020

By Melody Mendoza Aguiba

The Philippines should tap genomics to develop crops with “novel traits” and rich nutrition content such as as Golden Rice which solves blindness-causing Vitamin A deficiency with its pro-betacarotene content hitting 14 parts per million (PPM) through “gene transformation.”

   The Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) has pressed plant breeders to use the technology that makes use of gene transformation to fast-track development of crops. That with superior traits such as that of pro betacarotene-rich Golden Rice.

   Golden Rice, just awaiting go-signal to be released to the market anytime, has hit pro-betacarotene (Vitamin) A rich level of 14 PPM compared to zero Vitamin A content for non-Golden Rice. PPM stands for parts per million.

Human genome mapping in 1986 started a revolution in systems biology including crop development; Credit: Natl Genome Research Institute

   Effectively, it is averting blindness for up to 500,000 children who go blind yearly due to Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD).  VAD also affects immunity and increased mortality among children in the developing world including Philippines.

   Such efficacy in significant nutrition supplementation holds true too for “Zinc rice” which has reached a level of 25 to 51 PPM zinc content from zero. And “Iron rice” has likewise already reached the target at 12 to 15 PPM iron content from zero.

   These crops are among the desperately needed by end-consumers.

   Meeting such market’s needs should be the focus of genomics—an interdisciplinary field that revolutionized research in many fields — and of systems biology that started in human genome’s mapping in 1986.

   “Most important for us is genetic gain– the difference genomics gives to a new product from the original. If you have molecular markers for gene editing, that’s where you increase (and fast-track) selection (of a plant variety) with accuracy.  That  reduces  breeding cycle and product development time. You could see the genetic gain,” said Dr. Glenn B. Bregorio, SEARCA director.

   Gregorio himself was a plant breeder for 29 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and at hybrid vegetable producer East West Seeds.

   “I  am a plant breeder, and I’m very familiar with (molecular) marker-assisted selection.  As I get older, I realize the importance of sales, of commercialization. We should have market-aided selection so that our selection for traits should be based on the market, not only markers (molecular markers). There should always be a business component in everything we do,” Gregorio said.

Breeding with genetic selection fast-tracks development of crops with superior trait

   Breeding costs can be reduced by 32% and is even faster using genomics, he said.

   Molecular markers of desired traits in genes — identifying targeted novel or superior traits in plants — have played a huge role in fast-tracking crop development since the human genome mapping started in 1990. 

   Such desired genes – disease resistance or high yield, for example–  are inserted into the “transformed” crop.  

C4 rice now has the yellow content representing the protein corn originally has

    Genomics, and other “omics” disciplines – eg. Metabolomics which studies metabolites in relation to precision medicine in metabolic diseases–  should have huge commercial function in the following according to Gregorio:

  1. Developing more cereals by up to 45% in 2030 and raising yield of rice by 2.5% increase yearly as in the 1970-1990 era in order to meet population food demand. Rice yield growth slowed down to 1% yield yearly from 1990 to 2011.
  2.  Developing more climate-smart products as the C4 rice (ongoing development) which has “photosynthesis-efficiency” as that of corn. That means C4 rice is more drought resistant and produced with half the irrigation water used in normal rice.  It  even has 50%  yield increase due to nitrogen efficiency.

“We have to copy what has been done in corn. Because of hybrid, because of GMO (genetically modified organism), corn increased productivity very fast,” said Gregorio. Super diet rice, corn, and vegetables; low-glycemic cereals; and crops with novel traits such as the blue rose.

3. Crops grown with low carbon footprint demanded in rich markets as Europe.

Melody Mendoza Aguiba

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