These genetic 'goggles' could help us engineer wildly resilient crops

Popular Science | 2/7/2019 | Staff
moni (Posted by) Level 3
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Stem rust. Crown rust. Wheat blast. Powdery mildew. These whimsically-named diseases and others like them have devastating impacts for farmers and the people who rely on their bounty. A new method for finding disease-resistance genes in the wild cousins of domesticated crops could improve our ability to fight back.

In the wild, interbreeding is one of the ways plants remain genetically diverse. Domesticated crops don’t do this, so they have far less genetic diversity. If an illness can kill one of them, it likely can kill them all—so without diverse genes for disease resistance, domesticated plants like wheat and oats are vulnerable to contagion. As crops became domesticated, they also became genetically dissimilar from their wild relatives in ways that prevent the two from interbreeding. The biggest effect of this is food instability: whole crops can be quickly wiped out by diseases. In Bangladesh, for instance, wheat blast—a fungus endemic to South America—arrived in 2016 and has already done serious damage in a region of the world where the rate of people who are malnourished is high.

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“The way we deal with that in most modern intensive cropping systems is to douse our crops with chemicals,” says lead study author Brande Wulff, a biotechnologist at the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom. That’s not good for the environment—and it’s not always effective—but there aren’t a lot of other options at present.

Agriculture researchers have been actively combating disease for a long time by interbreeding domestic crops, like wheat, with wild relatives, but it takes more than a decade to produce a commercially viable strain. This involves identifying disease-resistant aspects of the wild plants and trying to introduce those genes into the crop plant—a process that can take generations of breeding.

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Wulff’s team developed a new method to speed the process up using a...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Popular Science
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