Unleashing the potential of seed breeding: the scientists hoping to feed the world with climate-resilient crops

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Salicornia plants living on cracked earth. Image: stock_colors
Salicornia plants living on cracked earth. Image: stock_colors

Related tags crop health climate change gene editing gmo

Climate-resilient crops are increasingly needed for our climate-changed world, opined a panel of renowned experts who were speaking at the World Agri-Tech Summit in Dubai earlier this month.

The task is especially great in the Middle East, where heat and salinity are the primary challenges for plants, and where growers need to minimise the use of water​. But with global climate challenges only expected to worsen, the region may well serve as a testbed.

Which technologies can best be leveraged?

New breeding techniques are emerging rapidly from advances in genomic research. Gretchen Weightman, Senior Vice President AMEA at Illumina – a global leader in genomic innovation – noted a “massive​” evolution in the biotech space over the last 20 years.

The general idea behind genomic research is to modify DNA at specific locations within a plant’s genes to produce new traits and properties. Illumina’s current focus in the area, she explained, is combining microarrays​ (a laboratory tool used to detect the expression of thousands of genes at the same time) and next generation sequencing in order to accelerate the process even more.

“Where the technology is going and how we're looking at understanding plant physiology especially is by moving from just genomics and moving a lot more now into what we call multiomics, so transcriptomics, epigenetics and making those links to the phenotypic differences.”

This powerful technology is helping “turbocharge​” plant breeding and crop improvements at multiple levels, lauded Mark Tester, Plant Science Associate Director at the Centre for Desert Agriculture (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. In particular, DNA sequencing and array-based technologies can improve the abiotic stress tolerance of plants, therefore help them grow better in tough conditions​.

What sort of pants should we look to improve via genomics? Do we take already domesticated crops such as wheat and try to make them grow better in harsher conditions? Or look to turn halophytic, or non-domesticated salt-, heat- and drought-tolerant crops such as salicornia, sesbania and safflower into new options for the market?

“Both these approaches should be used because they're completely complimentary,”​ noted Tester.

crop panel
Speakers (right to left): Mark Tester, Plant Science Associate Director, Centre for Desert Agriculture KAUST; Khalid Mahmood, Head Agri-Tech & ESG, MENA, Rothamsted Research; Aly Abousabaa, Director General & CGIAR's Regional Director, Central and W. Asia and N. Africa ICARDA; Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle, Chief Scientist, ICBA; Gretchen Weightman, Senior Vice President, AMEA, Illumina


One expert seeking to turn halophytic crops into new options for potential large-scale cultivation is Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle, Chief Scientist at the Dubai-based agricultural research centre, ICBA. By using next-generation sequencing platforms offered by the likes of Innova, he explained, scientists can potentially create new sources of productive, sustainable crops in hot, harsh environments plagued with dry land and limited water.

Salicornia – an edible plant found in many parts of the world – is one example of the type of crop the ICBA team wants to put on peoples’ plates in the Middle East, helped too by the fact it can grow in the brine created as a by-product of the region’s water desalination process.

“Salicornia has a huge potential to become a very important crop,”​ Becerra told the audience. “It has the capacity to grow in high saline water, meaning the lack of fresh water in certain parts of the world won't be a limitation.” ​Salicornia was originally promoted as biofuel source. ICBA’s research has revealed its high protein and essential oil levels are on a par with superfoods.

Salicornia is a “remarkable​” plant, concurred Tester. He stressed, “if we can use salt water [in which to grow crops], then we are using less fresh water and reducing the pressure on these valuable groundwater resources.”

Staple crops need more resilience too

Other experts on the panel outlined their efforts at making familiar plants more resilient. Scientists at UK-based Rothamsted Research, for one, are investigating how CRISPR gene editing can improve wheat’s ability to tolerate a range of climatic conditions​.

Temperatures during wheat pollination in the UK in recent years have hit close to 35 degrees Celsius, explained Khalid Mahmood, Rothamsted’s head of agri-tech and ESG for the MENA region. Such rises can potentially reduce yield by up to 50%. 

Rothamsted’s research also hopes to boost wheat’s nutritional credentials​ and tackle the UK's rising levels of diabetes and obesity. “The modern selection has lost the trace elements and the fibre,"​ lamented Mahmood.

Another panellist, Aly Abousabaa, Director General of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), outlined how Morocco has successfully grown new drought-tolerant varieties of wheat and barley​.

These varieties are the result of more than ten years of research incorporating the genetic resources of ancient wild relatives' species, collected and conserved within the ICARDA Genebank in Morocco, into today's over-bred and genetically limited staple crops. Because old wild relative crop variants have endured millennia of harsh climatic conditions, their traits hold the key to delivering resilient crops capable of withstanding the unprecedented stresses of the current climate crisis.

“We've been limiting ourselves in only 22 crops,”​ said Abousabaa. God has created so much wealth, and we have it in our gene bags. There is a need for new thinking to explore this very rich combination and come up with new crops that maybe will have the solution in the future without having all these additional techniques.”

Economically viable?

Can these climate-resistant crops be produced in a way that can be both economically viable and environmentally sustainable? The panellists identified numerous bottlenecks. Routes to market need to be found. Growers encounter market subsidies which limit the incentives to grow these types of crops. Funding is needed for global germ plasma banks to be mobilised and catalogued in greater detail. “We are only using a small portion of what has been currently profiled,”​ complained Weightman.

Regularity hurdles exist – specifically for GMO crops. Argentina has green-lit HB4, the first GM wheat strain in the world to receive such approval. This was bred with an extra gene edited in from the sunflower plant to better tolerate a lack of water. It could improve crop yields by 20% compared to regular wheat in warm climates.

Moves are afoot in the UK and EU to enable the development and marketing of gene edited crops. The difference between gene edited and genetically modified crops is slight. Whether retailers and consumers will accept them is another matter.  

The panellists made a general plea for education, and a shift in mindset to deal with the fact that a hotter world equals challenges for plants and for the system as a whole.

“In the future,”​ said Abousabaa, “we need to get used to eating what we can grow, not insist on growing what we would like to eat.”

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