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Cornell Lands $3M for Crop Genomics

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Cornell University researchers will use a $3 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study maize and wheat genomes and use markers within them to improve the varieties of crops that are grown by small farmers.

The goal of the research is to use genomic selection techniques to make crops better and make small farmers in places such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America more productive and efficient.

The project will be run through a partnership between Cornell's Holley Center for Agriculture and Health and the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), with the Cornell team testing the use of genomic selection on CIMMYT's maize and wheat breeding programs.

"This project will ultimately help small farmers in developing countries increase their yields and improve their livelihoods," Jean-Luc Jannink, a quantitative geneticist with the US Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) at the Holley Center and an adjunct professor at Cornell, said in a statement. "The project will also act as a blueprint for breeders of other crops to embrace the benefits of genomic selection."

"Traditional solutions to increasing productivity typically entail more effective irrigation and nutrient management, but both solutions are expenses that smallholder farmers can ill afford," added Mark Sorrells, who chairs Cornell's plant breeding program and genetics department. "Genomic selection is the next frontier for rapid genetic gains in maize and wheat."

The approach uses statistical methodologies and DNA marker and sequencing technologies to select untested germplasm lines based on predictions about their performance, and it enables researchers to cut out much of the time required to field test and grow crops over several breeding cycles.

The Cornell team will use this approach to test varieties already under development by increasing the sample size of available data about complex, environment-dependent traits and to accelerate the breeding cycle. The technique also will enable the researchers, and later the farmers, to manage diversity in the crops.

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