The journey to better seed through innovation

The journey to better seed through innovation

In the beginning…

Seeds are the basis of all plant life on earth. Since the beginning of time, mankind has continually found ways to improve the seeds we use to grow crops that provide food and nourishment for our daily survival. The earliest farmers were our first plant breeders who worked the fields in search of seeds that grew the hardiest crop. Many years of domestication from wild species and many generations of selection for desirable traits, have given us what is known today as cultivated varieties. Some of the most well-known examples of domestication from wild species includes the selective breeding of maize from a grass called Teosinte. Also, many of our common green leafy veggies that we eat daily such as cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli, are descendants of the wild mustard plant, a known superweed back in the day, proving that virtually everything we eat today has undergone some form of genetic evolution because of many years of human intervention.

Innovation in plant breeding

Advances in scientific crop improvement pre-dates the 1900s, when the impact of Gregor Mendel’s studies on trait inheritance in peas became widely recognised. The discovery and improved understanding of DNA as the genetic blueprint of all organisms soon followed and served as a catalyst for plant breeding to become a more exact science. The most notable achievements resulting from these scientific advances in plant breeding, was Norman Borlaug’s success with the development of high yielding wheat varieties that kickstarted the green revolution. Borlaug’s plant breeding efforts is credited with increasing food production that helped to feed millions of people globally and earned him international acclaim when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. It is important to point out that Borlaug required close to 20 years to develop his new wheat varieties. Fortunately, the plant breeding continuum continued to evolve since then, bringing with it even more sophisticated technologies to accelerate the breeding process.

Fast forwarding to the 1990’s, saw the arrival of various plant biotechnology tools being added to the plant breeder’s toolbox. Based on advances in science and a better understanding of plant genetics, these tools have helped to improve the efficiency of developing new and improved crop varieties. Plant biotechnology tools, such as genetic modification (also known as genetic engineering) enables plant breeders to precisely introduce beneficial traits into plants. Besides improving the efficiency of crop improvement, these genetic tools help overcome the limitations of earlier breeding methods by allowing the exchange of genetic material between different species. Genetically modified plants, commonly called GMOs, is perhaps the most talked about plant breeding innovation since its introduction 30 years ago. It has however, given us crops that help farmers tackle targeted pests and diseases in their fields, while improving production yields with minimal environmental impact and giving consumers access to better quality and more affordable food. South African agriculture has also enjoyed the benefits of these modern breeding tools, with improved varieties of maize, cotton and soybean offering effective weed control and better protection against targeted insect pests such as maize stalk borer and cotton bollworm.

The 21st century, delivered a major breakthrough in plant breeding innovation with the addition of gene editing tools. These tools allow plant breeders to work within the plant’s own gene pool to make precise changes that delete, add, or replace specific genetic information to develop new crop varieties. What differentiates gene editing from genetic modification tools, is that most often it is used to make specific changes to the plant’s genome that mimics the changes that occur in nature and through traditional breeding methods. In other words, gene editing can make improvements in plants that do not result in the presence of “foreign” DNA from outside the plant’s own gene pool. Even though gene editing technology is considered “new” its application is based on the same principles of conventional breeding which has a long history of safe use. The overriding advantage, however, is that it can achieve the same result as conventional methods but with greater precision and efficiency. Therefore, giving farmers access to a diversity of seed choices to fight pests and diseases and adapt to changing climates. The application of genome editing tools promises to deliver wide ranging benefits to farmers, consumers, and the environment. Potential products in the pipeline include wheat with reduced gluten content, non-browning mushrooms, soybeans with reduced unhealthy fats, blood pressure reducing tomatoes, grain crops that are tolerant to extreme climates and various fruits with improved resistance to devastating pests. In recognition of the groundbreaking nature of genome editing tools, in October 2020 two scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, received top honours and were jointly awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the gene editing tool, known as CRISPR-Cas9, in 2012.

Innovating for the future

Plant breeding innovations are helping to address many of the economic, environmental and health issues we face as a global society. By giving farmers access to the latest seed technology, we will improve our chances of being able to sustainably produce enough food to feed our growing population, while using less resources (i.e., land and water) with minimal environmental impact. Current and future applications of innovative seed technology will no doubt be part of the solution to accomplishing ambitious global targets for food security, climate mitigation and sustainability. The future of plant science innovation promises to give new meaning to the importance of seed being the basis of all plant life on earth.

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