Check it out: Some Thoughts on Plant Breeding to Adapt to Climate Change

By Sonia A. Hall

graphic showing 10 commodities, and their value in dollars
The top agricultural commodities in Washington do not include corn. Yet questions being explored in corn can be relevant to these and many other crops produced in the Pacific Northwest. Screenshot from the Washington State Department of Agriculture website, accessed March 8, 2021. https://agr.wa.gov/washington-agriculture

Maize, or corn, may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about agriculture in the Pacific Northwest (though 275,000 acres, of corn were harvested in 2020 in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, according to the US Department of Agriculture QuickStats). However, I was intrigued by a recent article focused on corn in ScienceDaily titled Climate-adapted plant breeding: Improvement of crops with genes from seed banks. The research paper the article discusses is about molecular technologies that allow researchers to scan the entire genome of different corn plants, which then allows them to link the data from field trials to genes that are relevant to specific traits. But what I found more intriguing was the discussion that framed why being able to do this is important. The article discusses how breeding targets particular desirable traits, such as yield, or stress tolerance, or disease resistance, eliminating alternate, undesirable traits. And then it questions whether this selection process might have led to the loss of traits that could be desirable when thinking about adaptations to future climates. So the molecular technologies that the related research paper highlights can help explore the genetic diversity in old varieties of corn, called landraces, to see if they contain genes that have been lost through breeding which could be beneficial in counteracting the impacts of climate change. Check out the ScienceDaily article, and the questions it poses about climate-adapted plant breeding, technology, and the contributions seed banks can make. I believe these questions are just as relevant to wheat and the many other crops important for our Pacific Northwest agriculture.

A green corn field, with mountains in the background
Landraces, or old varieties, of corn can contain genes that have been lost through breeding which could be beneficial in counteracting the impacts of climate change. Photo: WSDA under CC BY-NC 2.0.

References:

Technical University of Munich (TUM). 2020. Climate-adapted plant breeding: Improvement of crops with seeds from gene banks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 8, 2021 Online Access

Manfred Mayer, Armin C. Hölker, Eric González-Segovia, Eva Bauer, Thomas Presterl, Milena Ouzunova, Albrecht E. Melchinger, Chris-Carolin Schön. 2020. Discovery of beneficial haplotypes for complex traits in maize landraces. Nature Communications, 11 (1), 4954. Online Access