Survival of the Best: The Past, Present and Future of Plant Breeding
Selective breeding is nothing new; mankind has been doing it for thousands of years. Today, plant breeding is powered by the most advanced understanding of genetics and biological tools in human history – and scientists still have a few more tricks up their sleeves.
The carrot on your plate might seem like the most simple thing in the world – a hardy root that has nourished humans, from kings to peasants, for generations. But as humble as it seems, the common carrot – long, orange and crunchy – is actually just one result of a genetic engineering project that has been going on for the last ten thousand years. In the wild, carrots are small, pale and have thin, forked roots with a strong flavor. Only centuries of selective breeding for desirable traits has given us the carrot we see today.
The fact is, a huge amount of the fruit and vegetables we take for granted never looked that way to begin with. These are the results of the great story of human agriculture, a story in which our prehistoric ancestors methodically identified plants with desirable traits – the biggest, most flavorsome, or most disease resistant – and cross bred them.
While individually, the changes can be minor, over time, that process has radically reshaped what we put on our plates. Consider the brassica – this single plant, carefully cultivated over centuries has given us kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and turnips.
But as remarkable as all this is, the story is far from over.
Prehistoric agriculturists made the breeding decisions they did to cope with their environment. When food was scarce, making that ear of corn more nutritious and more weather resistant could be the difference between life and death over a long and cold winter. Of course, these farmers didn’t have a scientific understanding of the genetics underlying this process. Crop improvement was slow and produced random results, as genes interacted in unpredictable ways at the molecular level. Civilization and science have come a long way since then, but we face our own set of challenges.
There’s also the small matter of commercial imperatives. It doesn't take a crop scientist to point out that we like to buy things that taste better, look edible and stay fresh on the shelf for longer, whatever the season. “Probably the biggest thing that has happened to impact what's on your plate is the ability to grow and ship fruits and vegetables year round,” says Tom Osborn, Head of Vegetable Analytics and Pipeline Design at Bayer.
In response, agricultural scientists and plant breeders continue to innovate, creating crop varieties adapted to different growing conditions around the world that are more nutritious, more resistant to drought, disease and other forms of environmental stress – as well as prettier and tastier.
… Need Modern Solutions
But unlike farmers of the past, today’s plant scientists have a vastly expanded set of tools available to them, which they are using to transform how we practice plant breeding to improve the food supply.
Traditionally, the process by which farmers have bred plants has been phenotyping. Phenotyping means assessing a plant's expressed traits and then selecting the desired plants and seeds. In practical terms this means visually identifying differences within plants – for example, selecting for desirable colors, sizes, or number of fruits.
Plants reproduce by pollinating themselves or each other, so all the traditional agriculturist needed was to plant the seeds of the healthiest of their crop, and then they would grow, and fertilize each other, leading to a new generation of plants with the range of inherited traits contained in the parents. Though an imprecise science – selective breeding could often produce random results as breeders had limited knowledge of the genetic mechanisms at work – over time it led to significantly improved products. However, traditional plant breeding has seen significant changes over the last 15 years due to the introduction of genetic sequencing.
Now rather than just being able to see the results of breeding through phenotyping, we can see what happens to the structure of DNA and know why these changes occur in the plant at a genetic level – this is called genotyping. And thanks to recent developments in genetic science (three decades of rapid improvement in genetic technologies in order to understand human genetics and health), mapping out the DNA of humans, animals, plants and all living organisms is quicker and cheaper than ever.
This means that scientists are now using technology to identify individual genes within plants, giving them a deep understanding of exactly what clusters of DNA are responsible for certain traits and characteristics. This gives scientists an unprecedented ability to develop seed varieties for specific environments and markets.
Want a strain of corn that is specifically resistant to your drought? Thanks to genotyping, a plant breeder could go in and identify which parts of the DNA strand can give resistance to that, and only breed seeds with those genetics. Breeders can then select those seeds, and distribute them as a standalone or product.
Gene editing has the potential to solve real challenges for farmers and the planet, like reducing the need for pesticides and the use of energy, land, and water. In agriculture, this process typically looks to improve a beneficial trait within an organism, or to remove an undesirable trait. For years, “gene editing” was done through selective breeding in plants. But now we can make changes with more precision than ever before.
Gene editing tools, like CRISPR, are already helping researchers to make improvements within plant DNA. These tools have the potential to offer unmatched precision to farmers, allowing them to grow enough food while confidently reducing their use of natural resources. It’s important to note, as well, that although plant breeding is a form of genetic engineering, it is not the same as genetic modification, or GM.
And it’s not just about the seeds themselves. Coupled with broader technological improvements into data gathering and analysis, the process by which genes are selected and new crops make it into fields and onto your table is more efficient than ever before. “If we can use data to make a better decision today about which corn hybrids to produce over the winter, that can get us to a new commercial product much faster,” says Jonathan Jenkinson.
For him, who spent years working on-site in plant breeding programs, the result is significant. “When I started researching in the field, I had to save all the seed from every plot and put it in a bag, and then take it back to the building where our facilities were. That meant moving about 30 tons of seed by hand, in the form of little bags that weighed three kilograms each. And that, of course, slowed the time-to-market right down.”
Thanks to the development of modern data capture and analytics techniques, today it’s a very different story – and that’s good news for global farmers who are looking for solutions. “In the last 30 years, it's probably gone from a time to market of 11 to 13 years, down to 6 or 7 years,” says Jonathan.
Why Collaboration is Key
Innovations in plant breeding have advanced the prosperity of civilizations for centuries. Continuously improving seeds to grow more resilient and high-yielding, more nutritious crops remains one of agriculture’s strongest tools in fighting hunger and supporting the farmers who feed communities around the world. Bayer develops crops using cutting edge breeding technologies and an expansive library of germplasm. And even with the resources of a market leader, the challenges facing agriculture can’t be tackled by a single player alone. Having diverse germplasm – living genetic resources such as seeds or plant tissues that are maintained for the purpose of plant breeding and preservation – to tap into when developing new seed varieties makes plant breeders more successful in solving the problems facing global farmers – and that’s where collaboration comes in. “Seed genetics can be a really powerful force for economic development,” says Sara Boettiger.
Sara points out that every country that is successfully addressing poverty, started with transforming their agricultural sector: “Seed can be a critical part of that equation. That’s why we have a commitment at Bayer to reach 100 million smallholders.”
And that’s why Bayer contributes germplasm and genetic characterization data to other research programs around the world. For example in 2020, Bayer made a large maize germplasm donation to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Genetic Enhancement of Maize project – which aims to expand access to diverse maize genetics for researchers around the world. The donation is intended to facilitate the incorporation of underutilized genetic diversity into modern maize breeding programs – including organizations that help improve regional crops for smallholders based on regional needs.
Donating germplasm isn’t the only way that Bayer collaborates. In 2020 Bayer also partnered with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture to launch the Modern Breeding Project, which will focus on realizing crop resilience and yield potential for cassava, maize, cowpea, banana, yam, and soybean to support crop productivity, economic growth, and poverty reduction for African agriculture.
The project will build capacity and scale by leveraging insights from Bayer’s breeding program models and best practices. “Our shared goals in leveraging research and product development will provide new solutions towards food security and empowering African scientists and farmers, supporting Africa rising to achieve the grand challenges in the face of climate change while developing new ways of working in a dynamic food system,” says Stella Salvo, Head of Breeding Partnerships for Smallholder Farming at Bayer. “Our Bayer breeding teams will engage in sharing best practices in breeding program management, design and use of digital tools that will support the IITA’s research priorities and product outputs.”
The Breeding Story Continues
And that’s not all. Crop scientists currently consider themselves to be moving from the third generation of breeding, powered by genomic knowhow, and into a fourth generation. The goal is to build more flavorful, sustainable, and high yielding crops, which are more resilient against climate change from the ground up. And scientists they will do this for example by harnessing the targeted abilities of gene editing techniques.
“I would say the fourth era of breeding will be what we’re calling precision breeding at Bayer,” says Jonathan. “We’ve become really good at knowing how to find the best traits; that's what we perfected over the last 30 years. But precision breeding seeks to fundamentally change that entire approach. Instead of selecting the best traits, we are moving to an era where can actually design what's going to be the best from the very beginning.”