Michelle Curtis, Plant Breeding Coordinator for HM.CLAUSE in Vietnam, was one of four U.S. representatives invited to present at a recent APEC conference. It took place in Manila, Philippines, June 8 to June 12.
The conference focused on fostering the benefits of innovation in plant breeding and science communication.
Attendees were asked to consider how breeders can innovate to meet the challenges of climate change and resource scarcity in a world with a steadily growing population.
Curtis’ presentation on private sector research and development was followed by a panel discussion that was moderated by Bernice Slutsky, SVP of Domestic and International Policy at the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA).
In her presentation, which took place June 9, Curtis said new plant breeding techniques are needed to contribute improvements in crop productivity and sustainability.
“With all of the challenges that agriculture is facing, including population growth, climate change, and loss of farming land, precision plant breeding technology is very important for increasing global food production,” Curtis said.
She specifically talked about Site-Directed Nucleases (SDN), proteins that take advantage of the DNA repair and replication enzymes found in nature.
These changes can be used to edit genome sequences in a way that mimics naturally occurring transposition, which has played a key role in adaptive plant evolution. Changing a gene’s structure provides a source of new genetic variation for stressed populations.
Curtis said SDN, which introduce site-specific mutations into plant genomes, can speed up genetic progress and reduce the time it takes new varieties to go commercial.
“By making targeted single nucleotide changes in plant genes, new traits like disease resistance, increased yield, and improved nutrition can be introduced quickly and efficiently.”
One particularly versatile application of SDN that works with a single RNA, has enormous potential as a tool for researchers, Curtis said.
Known as CRISPR/Cas, this technology has tested successfully in both monocots and dicots, such as Arabidopsis and rice.
The method has also demonstrated suitability in tests with tomatoes, an economically important crop that boasts a high quality genome. According to the USDA, fresh and processed tomatoes account for more than $2 billion dollars each year in the United States.
Curtis also talked about three other potentially valuable tools for plant breeders: Oligo-directed mutagenesis (ODM), cisgenesis and intragenesis.
ODM uses synthetic oligonucleotides to introduce small, specific changes into the plant genome by mutating single base pairs. This is done without the integration of foreign DNA.
Curtis said successful results have been seen in several plant species, including maize, wheat, canola and banana.
Cisgenesis and intragenesis involve transferring a new gene into the genome of a plant. This gene is derived from either the same species or one that is cross-compatible.
Intragenesis is the synthesis of various DNA fragments from one of these species to create a chimeric gene, whereas the inserted gene in cisgenesis is an unchanged copy of an existing gene already found within a compatible pool.
These methods save breeders time by allowing them to avoid linkage drag and backcrossing, Curtis said.
As global climate change results in a higher average surface temperatures and increased droughts, Curtis said this project could be extremely valuable in helping the agriculture industry maintain production capacities.
Curtis said that the results from new plant breeding techniques are no different than those from conventional breeding methods, and are not expected to pose any risks to peoples’ health or the environment.
If crops that are bred using these new technologies are not regulated as GMOs, public institutions and private companies with smaller budgets could be allowed to enter agricultural markets. Curtis said these crops could also be sold in economies that do not readily accept GMOs. However, countries are still determining how to move forward with regulation and it is being decided on a case by case basis.
“Regulation of these products should be transparent, science-based and consistent with products bred by traditional methods in order to make this technology accessible to a wide range of companies and public institutions,” Curtis said.
APEC said it believes the role of regulatory agencies should be to commit to ensuring functioning, transparent and science-based processes, adding that these agencies should be otherwise neutral and not seek to persuade the public or undertake advocacy.
Organizers of the conference said they want to help develop an international standard for plant breeding so the greatest number of people can reap the benefits and so public and private sector developers can know the rules to participate.
They said harmonization of these policies will not only facilitate trade, but collaboration and communication between APEC Member Economies and their constituents will also lead to investment in necessary innovations to help address challenges to the sustainability of agriculture and global agri-food systems.