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Foundation's Plant Biology Division Works Toward Alfalfa Improvement

Posted Aug. 1, 2004

The Plant Biology, Forage Improvement and Agricultural divisions of the Noble Research Institute have recently initiated an interdivisional program to improve the forage quality and stand longevity of alfalfa in order to deliver to farmers and ranchers a novel source of high-quality forage. Alfalfa and alfalfa hay are the principal feed stocks for dairy cows, but are also important food sources for horses, beef cattle and sheep. Alfalfa contains between 15 to 26 percent crude protein, as well as other important vitamins and minerals. This high-protein content directly impacts milk, beef and wool production worldwide.

There are about 23 million acres of alfalfa cut for hay in the United States annually. Despite its widespread use and recognized value, alfalfa contains traits and susceptibilities that limit its optimal utilization, especially in the southern Great Plains region. Importantly, these deficiencies can be corrected through the application of appropriate scientific tools. The new program aims to tackle three important and distinct traits: resistance to cotton root rot disease (probably the major impediment to alfalfa growing in our region), improved digestibility and reduction in pasture bloat potential. The Noble team working on these traits includes molecular biologists, plant transformation specialists, agronomists and an agricultural economist. In addition, a formal collaboration has been entered into with scientists from the U.S. Dairy and Forage Research Center in Madison, Wis.; Forage Genetics International in West Salem, Wis.; and the University of Minnesota to pool scientific resources for alfalfa improvement.

Quality traits present major targets for the biotechnological improvement of forage crops. Many years of research have identified the following: the woody cell wall compound lignin as an impediment to digestibility; lack of chemicals called condensed tannins as promoting pasture bloat and limiting nitrogen nutrition; and the presence of chemicals called triterpene saponins as an anti-palatability factor and promoter of bloat. Recent research breakthroughs in the Plant Biology Division on understanding and manipulating the formation of lignin, condensed tannins and saponins will facilitate engineering of alfalfa and other forage crops for reduced bloating potential and improved digestibility and palatability.

Tackling the cotton root rot problem will be more difficult, because there is no known resistance to this fungal disease in existing alfalfa germplasm. The Noble Research Institute's long-term approach will marry improved management strategies with novel molecular approaches for finding genes to confer resistance.

The first biotech products to reach the farm have been modified for input traits such as insect or herbicide resistance. Millions of acres in the United States are now planted with genetically modified corn, soybean and cotton, but such products have met with resistance from environmentalists and the public in Europe and elsewhere. Forage crops with genetically improved quality (output) traits will not only improve animal productivity, but will also benefit both the health of the animals that consume them and the environment through reductions in waste excretion and greenhouse gas emission. Achieving the long-term goal of combating cotton root rot will provide the farmers and ranchers of our region a superb forage crop that has previously been of doubtful value because of the unpredictability of stand longevity. Genetically improved forage crops represent a unique opportunity for demonstrating the global benefits of biotechnology.

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