February 21st, 2015
If the planet’s population is going to go from 7 billion today to 8 billion by 2025, then we’re going to have to find more to eat. But while there are 300,000 species of flowering plants, we only use about a dozen for food. Cornell University biologist Susan McCouch sees that as a very big problem.
Writing in the July 4 Nature, McCouch is concerned that we need to take advantage of more genetic diversity from plants by eating a more diverse array of them. While food production will have to double in 25 years to meet demand, hundreds of thousands of seeds have been stored in about 1,700 gene banks located around the world. These banks provide not only the seeds and genes from a wider array of plants; they also provide says to improve the yields of current crops.
And it’s not just about GMOs, either. Just knowing what genes and variants improve production can help traditional breeders aim for those positive traits when growing new plants. Genome wide sequencing, now relatively inexpensive, can eliminate most “bad” variants while focusing on plants that carry “good” genes that resist pests and tolerate stresses like drought.
McCouch says the world needs to take three steps to make our food sources more diverse (and therefore, less prone to catastrophic failure):
• First, get sequencing information from all the genomes of all plants now in the world’s gene banks. This would include what she calls a “genomic parts list,” of sequences that program favorable traits.
• Second, match the genetic sequences with actual physical traits (known as “phenotypes”). Then, researchers can better predict how plants will fare in different geographical areas and under different ecological conditions.
• Third, create ways to merge databases and informatics systems for all the world’s seed and gene collections. Right now, each has been developed more or less separately, making it more difficult to share important genetic information and help make the first two steps a reality.
The “green revolution” of the 1960s boosted food production dramatically, largely due to the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers (as well as smarter farming techniques). Now, to feed a world that’s still growing, it probably is biodiversity’s turn.
Photo: USDA/Wikimedia Commons
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