USAID Engagement at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference
Global food production will need to increase by 60 percent, while facing the challenges of climate change and dwindling environmental resources, to support the estimated world population of 9 billion in 2050. To meet these demands, utilizing the genetic diversity found in crops and livestock will be crucial for the development of future plant varieties and livestock breeds that are climate resilient, disease resistant, and higher yielding.
On January 14, 2014 at the Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, California, Dr. Lindsay Parish from the Research Division within the Bureau for Food Security of USAID, hosted a symposium entitled “Harnessing genetic diversity to advance food security.” Four of the five speakers who participated in the symposium are associated with newly awarded Feed the Future Innovation Labs, which undertake research with the goal of improving global food security and nutrition. Presentations at the symposium highlighted ways in which genetic diversity can be harnessed to meet the growing demand for increased agriculture productivity.
During the process of domestication, which involved thousands of years of selective breeding by humans, many agricultural crops have lost a considerable amount of genetic diversity. In order to replenish genetic diversity, scientists are looking to use the wild relatives of certain crops as a source of new alleles (different versions of the same gene). At the USAID symposium, Dr. Doug Cook, the Program Director for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate-Resilient Chickpea, discussed the potential of breeding domestic chickpea plants with their wild relatives in order to incorporate wild alleles that would enhance the climate resilience of domestic varieties. Similarly, Dr. Andy Patterson, the Program Director for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Sorghum, presented on the idea of breeding domesticated sorghum with its wild relatives in order to develop a perennial sorghum line that would be able to produce multiple croppings from a single planting. The use of perennial sorghum varieties over varieties that require farmers to replant annually could potentially reduce labor and sowing costs as well as aid in the conservation of soil.
In addition to increased productivity and climate resilience, genetic diversity can be used to develop crops that are resistant to agricultural diseases and pests. Dr. Richard Ward, a collaborator with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Applied Wheat Genomics, discussed the potential of utilizing the genetic diversity within domesticated wheat populations and its wild relatives to develop varieties of wheat with enhanced resistance to wheat stem rust. Dr. Ward also outlined the importance of developing new molecular tools and diagnostic tests to detect new strains of the fungus responsible for causing wheat stem rust.
As with many crops, utilizing the genetic diversity found in livestock may lead to the development of breeds with enhanced productivity and disease resistance. Dr. Susan Lamont, a collaborator with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry, presented research on identifying regions of the chicken genome that confer resistance to heat stress and Newcastle disease, a disease that is the number one constraint to raising village poultry in Africa. Once scientists have identified regions of the chicken genome that are associated with desirable traits, natural breeding programs can be designed to select chickens with enhanced disease resistance and heat tolerance.
In addition to making research investments to explore the potential of genetic diversity for developing improved crops and livestock, the preservation of existing genetic diversity is important to ensure that genomic resources exist for future generations. Harvey Blackburn, the National Coordinator for the National Animal Germplasm Program, outlined the importance of preserving livestock genetic diversity. Gene banks, such as the National Animal Germplasm Program, can be used by breeders and scientists to add genetic variability into rare livestock breeds, search for desirable traits such as climate resilience and disease resistance, and serve to back up the genetic diversity of existing livestock populations.
In summary of the USAID symposium presentations, genetic diversity, within crop and livestock populations as well as their wild relatives, is a natural resource that has enormous potential to aid in the development of improved and higher yielding agricultural varieties and breeds. The investments we make in research and in the preservation of genetic diversity today will help support the future food security of our world tomorrow.