In the world of agricultural genomics, there’s no shortage of resources for scientists trying to identify genes associated with more robust plant traits. The problem, according to plant pathologist Robert Zeigler, is finding an efficient way to access the germplasm banks spread out across the globe.
These accessions, as the collections are called, “hold within them tremendous genetic variation and traits of considerable interest, for example tolerance to drought and salinity, and other difficult traits that have really frustrated breeders,” Zeigler says. “But it’s been very difficult in the past to access those accessions in the germplasm banks.”
So Zeigler, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa who most recently directed the Plant Biotechnology Center at Kansas State University, got together with colleagues from the plant biology community to try to do something about it. With the goal of creating new crop varieties with improved tolerance for drought and salinity, among other traits, Zeigler and his colleagues raised more than $5 million from the EU and $3 million from the World Bank to support research on the germplasm banks and molecular plant breeding. (USAID is also contributing $1 million through its cereals comparative genomics initiative.)
With Ziegler as its director, in January the initiative — called the Challenge Programme for Unlocking Genetic Diversity in Crops for the Resource Poor — set up shop outside Mexico City at the headquarters of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT.
“This program was conceived as a means of going in and first identifying the genetic wealth held within these banks, developing the tools and techniques to discover the genes, and then moving these genes into crop improvement programs that target poor farmers and consumers in developing countries,” says Zeigler. “We recognized that a center like CIMMYT or [the International Rice Research Institute] working on its own is no longer capable of undertaking this tremendously complex task.”
The Challenge Programme has already distributed its first round of funding for gathering preliminary data and developing an informatics platform. The next order of business is to put out a call for proposals next month to solicit researchers interested in contributing to the discovery of new genes associated with improved cereals, rice, and wheat. Ziegler expects the call to focus on gene discovery and comparative genomics, and possibly the development of specific informatics tools.
In essence, the initiative plans to collate and comb through both germplasm banks and the multitude of plant genome resources, such as cDNA libraries and collections of ESTs and SSRs, to identify useful gene loci. Using comparative genomics, the program aims to identify genes for similar traits in related species — and ultimately to use anchor markers to build consensus gene maps of various crop species important to developing countries. The Challenge Programme will also create an informatics resource to store and analyze data assembled by the program, and to train scientists in developing countries to use it, Ziegler says.
Given the recent controversies over genetically modified foods, Zeigler acknowledges the potential difficulties of trying to promote plant biotechnology in developing countries. Many of the new crop varieties that result will not be transgenic, he says, but Zeigler stresses that his organization must be proactive in communicating the benefits of the technology to the public. “It’s telling of the significance of this program that the largest donor is the European Union,” he says. “Cooler heads recognized that we have to bring the power of science to these problem areas.”
— John S. MacNeil