Educating Plant Breeders
Educating Plant Breeders to Meet Global Need
Story by Diane Nelson, Department of Plant Sciences
January 6, 2011. Over the past century, UC Davis has honored its mandate as a land grant college — to provide quality higher education and address the needs of society — in part by educating plant breeders and developing improved cultivars to keep agriculture productive and strong.
Is that changing?
Yes. And no.
It’s true that much of the University’s plant breeding has moved to the private sector, especially with highly competitive crops like corn, vegetables and flowers where new varieties can reap big dividends. Industry looks to University researchers to help solve problems, but not compete with them in the marketplace. But it’s also true that UC Davis has been laying the foundation for diverse plant breeding programs, rebuilding them to meet society’s expanding need for cutting-edge agricultural, biological and environmental science.
Plant breeding isn’t just about creating a more perfect peach. It’s about exploring the world for the wild and domesticated ancestors of our modern crops. It’s about developing molecular tools to assist in the breeding process. Using gene banks and germplasm repositories, it’s about stewardship of the planet’s biodiversity.
So what is plant breeding? It’s the generation and selection of plants to obtain certain traits, and been around for thousands of years. Since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, farmers have been developing varieties of plants to yield desired results. When you eat an ear of corn, for example, you can thank the prehistoric agriculturalists who started the process by selecting types of maize that retained their seed on the ear, leading to the development of corn on the cob. Plant breeding can be accomplished through many activities, from simply selecting plants with desirable characteristics for propagation to more complex molecular breeding techniques.
The scientific underpinnings of plant breeding began to be understood in the mid-nineteenth century with the work of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. Using the pea plants in his garden, Mendel observed how traits were passed down to succeeding generations and he formulated the idea that specific traits were inherited as units in a predictable way. By the mid-twentieth century, scientists had established that traits are transmitted by genes, which store and express chemical information resulting in these characteristics. An understanding of genetic principles and their application to plant breeding technology has greatly accelerated the rate of improvement of crop plants.
Crop improvement can mean everything from tastier melons to more disease-resistance lettuce to healthier bread to a more just, equitable world.
The latter is what led Iago Lowe to seek his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics from UC Davis in 2007. Lowe didn’t have a background in agriculture – his double major from Dartmouth College in 1997 was in physics and religion, with a minor in film studies. What he had, instead, was a front-row seat to the role agricultural can play in creating opportunity and equality.
“While working in Tanzania on various small community development projects, I became aware not only of my lack of qualifications to do such work but also the shockingly high failure rate of development projects in general," Lowe explains. “There are so many needs – for schools, roads, water, other infrastructure – but when the money and people leave, so often the projects simply die. The few projects I saw that continued to thrive, that really made tangible differences in people's lives, almost always dealt with local food security, seed systems, soil and water conservation, and ecological restoration. Of course, such projects demanded a set of skills I didn’t have. Now nearing the end of my time here at Davis, this is no longer the case.”
Lowe’s research focuses on identifying and characterizing genetic sources of resistance to stripe rust, a fungal disease that has plagued wheat growers for centuries, destroying billions of bushels of wheat across the globe. In some parts of the world, wheat is the major source of protein and people can go hungry when a rust epidemic strikes. Working with Department of Plant Sciences Professor Jorge Dubcovsky, Lowe has identified stripe rust resistance genes that are now being introgressed into elite California varieties and may eventually contribute to the long-term development of resistance gene pyramids for more durable stripe rust resistance.
“Through this sort of research, I know I am making some small difference in the world,” Lowe says. “What is especially appealing about working in a public research and breeding program is that our results are made available to breeders everywhere, to expand on and use as they see fit.”
Indeed, plant breeding is vital to so many people and areas of research, says Professor and Cooperative Extension Specialist Ted DeJong, a pomologist with the Department of Plant Sciences.
“The UC Davis plant breeding program is as important now as it ever was — maybe more so,” he says. “We need to keep students trained because university training provides a pipeline of breeders to industry and to society as a whole.”
But it’s more than that, DeJong says.
“The process of breeding provides something tangible, not just for our constituents, but for us, as well,” he says. “It’s important for researchers to work not just in the realm of knowledge, but to work with mud and dirt and drought and wind. We understand the needs of growers and the industry when we understand the nuances of growing crops, when we get our hands dirty and try to develop new cultivars that meet their requirements for staying viable in changing markets and environments.”
Scores of plant science researchers get their hands dirty working on a wide range of breeding programs — from flowers to strawberries, from nuts to beans, from poplars to prunes. Dubcovsky is making strides enhancing the nutritional value of wheat, for example, and geneticist Steve Temple’s hybridized heirloom bean strains are winning rave reviews for their flavor, yield and resistance to viruses. The list goes on and on.