Charlie Brummer, Ph.D., discusses the progress of tall fescue breeding with Yanling Wei, Ph.D., a senior research associate in Brummer's laboratory.
"Plant breeding will play an ever increasing role in providing supplies for the world's growing population."
Zeng-Yu Wang, Ph.D.,
Lloyd Noble's decision to establish Noble Research Institute was inspired by the plight of Oklahomans during the Dust Bowl - a decade-long agricultural catastrophe caused by drought and wind erosion of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains. Regional farmers unwittingly aided this disaster by foregoing cover crops and crop rotation in favor of less environmentally friendly farming strategies. The Dust Bowl forced an exodus of "Okies" to move west in search of work and livelihood.
Today, scientists at the Noble Research Institute are working to prevent such tragedies in the future by breeding crops that will actively improve their agricultural environments.
"At its most basic form, plant breeding is the scientific improvement of crop plants," said Charlie Brummer, Ph.D., director of the Noble Research Institute's Forage Improvement Division. "It requires the identification of superior plants, hybridization of those plants and the generation of new combinations of genes that provide the variability from which a breeder can select for the next wave of breeding. There are countless potential uses for plant breeding, but improving the environment is a particularly important goal."
The most significant impact plant breeding can have on the environment is through the creation and promotion of perennial crops, which grow back each year without being replanted, saving time, energy and disruption to the soil. Perennials also develop deep root systems that hold the soil together and effectively prevent erosion.
"We could greatly benefit agricultural environments by transitioning from annual crops to perennials," said Brummer, who recently published a paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on the benefits of plant breeding to the environment. "Rather than planting and replanting annual wheat, we can breed a perennial wheat that's always in the ground, holding down the soil. We can also breed better forage crops so livestock can gain weight on a perennial crop like alfalfa instead of requiring costly feedlot corn."
Along with perennializing crops, plant breeding can decrease the necessity for fertilizers and pesticides, thus reducing the spread of chemicals into nearby bodies of water. It can bolster a plant's ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, maintaining a fertile environment for future farming, and it can improve the efficiency of a plant's conversion of harmful airborne carbon dioxide into oxygen. "Only time can tell how far plant breeding will go to improve the agricultural environments on which we all rely," Brummer said.
But modern plant breeders are not only concerned with the environment; they are also working to prevent the potential demographic crises of in the future.
Feeding 9 billion
Recent studies indicate that in the next 40 years, global population will increase from 6.8 billion to more than 9.3 billion. This monumental upturn will dramatically increase pressure on the farmers and ranchers who work to produce food, feed and fiber for the world. The effects will be more pronounced as humans continue to encroach on agricultural environments (a process called urban sprawl) and continue to consume other invaluable resources such as soil and water.
Plant breeding has the ability to make a dramatic impact as the need for agricultural products increases. It allows for the production of crops that can withstand varying climates that are prone to drought or heavy rains.
"All indications are that we're getting more extreme weather events," Brummer said. "There's always been extreme weather, but now you often get more variability in climatic conditions and that can be difficult for crop production to handle. Part of the goal of breeding, especially breeding for growing populations, is trying to generate plants that have some measure of stability in the face of variable climate."
Breeding can also help farmers grow a greater yield on a smaller area with less necessity for inputs like water, fertilizer and pesticide. These advances make it easier and cheaper to produce crops on a large scale, especially in economically depressed regions of the world where agricultural inputs are expensive or fertile fields are rare.
Modern plant breeding can bolster agricultural production around the globe, and upon examination of the field's deep historical roots, this is by no means a surprise.
Back to the future
Plant breeding is an ancient science. Early civilized humans realized that it made sense to plant the biggest and hardiest food crops, and since then plant breeders have constructed their craft upon that simple foundation. The basic goals of modern plant breeders are not so different from those pursued by their predecessors in the distant past. "We still follow the same pattern as the early breeders," Brummer said. "We put plants in the field and see how they perform."
But while modern plant breeding stays true to its original purpose, new scientific breakthroughs mean that this field now has more potential than ever to make a positive impact on our planet and its people. New techniques such as genetic engineering can increase the scope and speed of plant breeding research. "Genetic engineering is useful either when a desirable trait is not present at all, when it isn't present in any species you could hybridize, or when it's present at a level that isn't economically or environmentally viable," said Zeng-Yu Wang, Noble Research Institute professor, who focuses on genetic transformation.
Through genetic engineering, alterations that would have taken many years in the past can be made rapidly and efficiently. These changes can allow for increased yield of a desired agricultural product, greater adaptability to different climatic conditions or diminished need for potentially harmful chemicals to ensure productive crop growth. "It will be necessary for advances like these to be made quickly in the future," Wang said. "Plant breeding will play an ever increasing role in providing supplies for the world's growing population."
Molecular markers can also enhance the resources available to plant breeders. "Molecular markers are dramatically changing the pace of breeding," Brummer said. "We are now able to select indirectly using a molecular marker rather than waiting five years to see if a plant survives in the field. Nevertheless, the basic principle of picking the best plants and recombining them is the same."
Although research and technology are critical components of plant breeding, they are not the only ones. The corporate world also plays an important role in the perpetuation of the field.
To the market
Cooperation between the nonprofit and commercial sectors is essential for successful plant breeding. Private companies must ultimately market the seeds of an improved crop that a plant breeder develops. "The commercial sector is vitally important in any kind of breeding," Brummer said. "You can breed a new grass that is drought tolerant, but if you can't find anybody to market it, then farmers will not have access to it and may fail to adopt it."
The private sector is responsible for distributing the products of plant breeding, but public and nonprofit institutes are the roots of the research behind these modified crops. The Noble Research Institute is unique among these institutes in that its Forage Improvement Division functions alongside the Plant Biology Division and the Agricultural Division as part of a combined effort to improve agriculture, moving research from the lab to the field. The Forage Improvement Division interacts directly with Plant Biology in the areas of genetic engineering and molecular markers, radically increasing the speed and efficiency of its research.
At the same time, scientists from Forage can receive practical feedback from the consultants of the Agricultural Division, gaining an informed perspective on the needs of local farmers. This forms a continuum the Noble Research Institute scientists have deemed the "research pipeline," an interaction that is unique to the organization.
The interactions between the Noble Research Institute's divisions, specifically in the field of plant breeding, continue to become essential to providing practical solutions to the pressing problems of the next generation. "Our goal as plant breeders is to produce something new that genuinely helps people," Brummer said. "Even though we are required to jump a few hurdles along the way, it is rewarding to know that we're contributing to the benefit of mankind."