An Electronic Newsletter of Applied Plant Breeding Sponsored by FAO and Cornell University Clair H. Hershey, Editor



* A new OPINION section



* Successes in African Agriculture: Results of an Expert Survey

* Challenges and Opportunities for Enhancing Sustainable Cowpea Production

* The Quality of Science in Participatory Plant Breeding

* Farmer Processes of Experimentation and Innovation

* Biotechnology and Genetic Resource Policies

* Private Investment in Agricultural Research and International Technology Transfer in Asia

* Environmental Biosafety Research -- A new interdisciplinary journal

* Agricultural Biotechnology: Informing the Dialogue


* Experiences with on-farm testing in maize variety evaluation in Uganda

* Pipeline threatens groundnut biodiversity

* GM potato could feed India's poor

* India sets new rules against biopiracy

* The importance of local knowledge in conserving crop diversity

* World planting of biotech crops up 12 pct in 2002

* Doubling wildrye's chromosomes

* New varieties from ARS potato breeders

* Researchers find first active 'jumping genes' in rice

* Screening soybean lines for phytopthora resistance

* Nematode-resistant varieties of hybrid bell peppers

* Wheat varieties for dry seasons

* New chickpea research


* Improvement of African Crops and Seed Supply Systems

* Info Finder


* Will Seedbanks be 'Obsolete and Worthless' in Future?


1. EDITOR'S NOTES Plant Breeding News is an electronic forum for the exchange of information and ideas about applied plant breeding and related fields. It is published every four to six weeks throughout the year.

The newsletter is managed by the editor and an advisory group consisting of Elcio Guimaraes (, Margaret Smith (, and Anne Marie Thro ( The editor will advise subscribers approximately two weeks ahead of each edition, in order to set deadlines for contributions.

Content consists principally of contributions from subscribers, and as such may vary considerably from one edition to another. Contributions may be in such areas as: technical communications on key plant breeding issues; announcements of meetings, courses and electronic conferences; book announcements and reviews; web sites of special relevance to plant breeding; announcements of funding opportunities; requests to other readers for information and collaboration; and feature articles or discussion issues brought by subscribers.

Subscribers are encouraged to take an active part in making the newsletter a useful communications tool. Your contributions are the core of the newsletter and suggestions on format and content are always welcome by the editor, at We would especially like to see a broad participation from developing country programs and from those working on species outside the major food crops.

Messages with attached files are not distributed on PBN-L for two important reasons. The first is that computer viruses and worms can be distributed in this manner. The second reason is that attached files cause problems for some e-mail systems.

* A NEW "OPINION" Section With this edition, we are introducing a section of the newsletter for opinions on topics relevant to applied plant breeding. Currently there are a number of internet discussion groups and listserves that provide lively debate on biotechnology, and especially GMOs. I suggest that this newsletter need not provide an additional outlet for these opinions, but rather should focus on other issues of direct relevance to applied plant breeding. This edition includes some provocative thoughts from David Wood on germplasm collection and conservation (Section 6).

To subscribe to PBN-L: Send an e-mail message to Leave the subject line blank and write SUBSCRIBE PBN-L (Important: use ALL CAPS). To unsubscribe: Send an e-mail message as above with the message UNSUBSCRIBE PBN-L. Lists of potential new subscribers are welcome. The editor will contact these persons; no one will be subscribed without their explicit permission.



* 18-21 Feb. 2003: El Fitomejoramiento Participativo en Cuba. Logros y Perspectivas. La Habana, Cuba. Email: y

(NEW) * 21-22 February 2003: The 2003 National Floriculture Forum (NFF), The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA.

(NEW) * 16-19 March 2003: Conference on Plant-made Pharmaceuticals. Québec, Canada.

* 24-28 March 2003: Advanced Research and Procedures in Biosafety and Risk Assessment for the Environmental Release of GMOs. Florence, Italy.

(NEW) * 5-8 May 2003: The 5th Congress on Artichokes, Tudela (Navarra Spain).

* 18-22 May 2003: Molecular Breeding of Forage and Turf. Dallas, TX, USA.

* 22-24 May 2003: The Third Taro Symposium. Nadi, Fiji Islands.

* 26-30 May 2003: Introduction to Biosafety and Risk Assessment for the Environmental Release of GMOs: Theoretical Approach and Scientific Background. Trieste, Italy.

(NEW) * 23-25 June 2003: Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, Sacramento, California, USA.

* 29 June 3 July 2003: Public Goods and Public Policy for Agricultural Biotechnology. Ravello, Italy.

* 6-11 July 2003: XIX International Congress of Genetics. Melbourne, Australia.

* 14-25 July 2003: PRA/PLA Workshop. Reading, UK. Contact: Pascal SANGINGA []

(NEW) * 25-29 August 2003: EUCARPIA XXI International Symposium: Classical vs. Molecular Breeding of Ornamentals. Freising-Weihenstephan (Germany) Info: Prof. Dr. Gert Forkmann, TU München, Zierpflanzenbau, Am Hochanger 4, 85350 Freising, Germany. Phone: (49)8161713416, Fax: (49)8161713886, email:



Successes in African Agriculture: Results of an Expert Survey. Eleni Z. Gabre-Madhin and Steven Haggblade. January 2003.

Using primary data from a survey of expert opinion, this paper identifies key successes emerging in African agriculture. Among these, major commodity-specific successes identified include breakthroughs in maize breeding across Africa, sustained gains in cassava breeding and successful combat of its disease and pests, control of the rinderpest livestock disease, booming horticultural and flower exports in East and Southern Africa and increased cotton production and exports in West Africa. Using a dynamic analytical framework, the paper attempts to identify key ingredients that appear necessary for building on these individual cases and expanding them into broad-based agricultural growth. IFPRI Discussion Paper No. 53.


Challenges and Opportunities for Enhancing Sustainable Cowpea Production

Cowpea researchers from different parts of the world came together to participate in the World Cowpea Research Conference III from 4 to 8 September 2000 at IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria. The proceedings are now available online. They include six papers under the genetics and breeding section, and many others which partially relate to breeding.


The Quality of Science in Participatory Plant Breeding. A workshop hosted by the Participatory Research and Gender Analysis (PRGA) Program of the CGIAR. September 30-October 4, 2002, IPGRI, Rome, Italy.

Presentations currently available online: Fukuda, W., C. Fukuda and N. Saad. 2002. Scaling up of participatory cassava breeding in Brazil: A case study from the Northeast. EMBPRAPA/CIAT/PRGA.

Lilja, N, and J. Ashby. 2002. Impact of Participatory Plant Breeding: An Overview. PRGA/CIAT.

Lilja, N., A. Aw-Hassan, H.Salahieh, J.Ashby, S.Ceccarelli and S.Grando. 2002. Benefits and Costs of Decentralized Participatory Barley Breeding at ICARDA, Syria. PRGA/ICARDA.

vom Brocke, K. G. Trouche, J. Singbeogo, R. Kaboré and C.Barro. 2002. Data evaluation from participatory selection in segregating material of sorghum in two areas in Burkina Faso. First experiences from the project "Preservation and enhancement of sorghum biodiversity in Mali and Burkina Faso". CIRAD/INERA.

Links to the above presentations can found at: More extended abstracts and presentations will be posted by 15 February, 2003


Farmer Processes of Experimentation and Innovation: A Review of the Literature. Nadine Saad. Working Document No. 21. CGIAR Systemwide Program on Participatory Research and Gender Analysis. August 2002.


Biotechnology and Genetic Resource Policies. Briefs 1-6. This volume contains the first in a series of IFPRI briefs on biotechnology and genetic resource policies. The briefs present syntheses and synopses of research conducted by a team from IFPRI's Environment and Production Technology Division and several collaborators.


Private Investment in Agricultural Research and International Technology Transfer in Asia Carl E. Pray and Keith O. Fuglie ERS Agricultural Economics Report No. 805. 162 pp, November 2001

This report provides original estimates of private sector agricultural research and development efforts in Asia during the 1990s. The report examines seven Asia countries (India, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China). The examination provides an assessment of the trends in private sector R&D developments in the agricultural inputs industries in each country.


Environmental Biosafety Research A new journal

A new interdisciplinary journal, Environmental Biosafety Research, the official journal of the International Society for Biosafety Research, has just been launched. The new journal aims to provide a single forum for the reporting and discussion of such issues as ecological studies of the impact of novel organisms; studies of their interactions with pests and pathogens; food and feed safety evaluation; impact of novel organisms on agronomy and farming practice, effect on microbial populations and assessment of horizontal gene flow.

The initial copy is available free of charge at For additional information send email to


Agricultural Biotechnology: Informing the Dialogue. Cornell University.

"The purpose of the publication is to help the public become more knowledgeable about the issues surrounding biotechnology, and develop a common understanding of its benefits and risks," according to Anthony Shelton, Cornell professor of entomology, and chief architect of the publication.

The publication covers 14 broad subject areas with text, photos and illustrations. First, it provides background information on biotechnology, and reviews some basic concepts in biology and agriculture, including what a gene is, how life forms share genes, how agriculture developed over the last 10,000 years, and what traditional plant breeding is. It identifies some of the pioneers in the field, and then goes on to discuss ag biotech as it relates to food safety, human health, the environment, and global food systems, as well as the technology's development, control, and regulation. One section discusses ethical and religious values, agricultural sustainability, and the labeling of transgenic foods. Another section reviews ag biotech issues in the media, including transgenic papaya, the Monarch butterfly controversy, and StarLink corn. A two-page glossary of terms and a list of references is included.



Research Abstract: Experiences with on-farm testing in maize variety evaluation in Uganda G. Bigirwa, J. Kikafunda, J. Imanywoha, P. Kibwika, S. Mugo, M. Siambi, D. Beck & A.O. Diallo

High seed prices and the unavailability of improved seed are major reasons why farmers continue to grow local and unimproved maize varieties. To overcome this problem, farmers were involved in grouping and evaluating improved maize varieties using the mother-baby trial methodology to identify varieties of their choice and later allow them to begin producing their own seed of improved, open pollinated varieties. Farmers seeking hybrid varieties were directed to the companies producing seed of selected varieties. Activities entailed testing sets of improved varieties and hybrids under optimal and sub-optimal fertilizer conditions in mother trials and under farmer conditions in baby trials for three cropping seasons in two maize growing districts of Uganda. The varieties were commercial cultivars and elite experimental maize in the advanced stages of testing. Four open pollinated varieties, SADVILA, Longe 1, Longe 4, and SADVEB consistently performed well across fertility levels, locations and seasons. Hybrids SC 715, SC 627, and Longe 2H were identified as suitable for growing by farmers and researchers. The criteria for choice of varieties by farmers at green maturity were cob size, cob filling time-to-maturity, at harvest, it was grain size, cob filling and cob size. This paper will present results from variety performance including farmer evaluations from the mother-baby trials. Abstract extracted from the 'Biotechnology, Breeding and Seed Systems for African Crops: Research and Product Development that Reaches Farmers. Program, Participants and Abstracts'. The Rockefeller Foundation, Nairobi.


Pipeline threatens groundnut biodiversity

A new US$2 billion natural gas pipeline from Bolivia to Brazil is threatening to wipe out one of the last remaining habitats for wild groundnut, scientists warned today.

These endangered stocks are a vital source of biodiversity that could help develop improved varieties of groundnut an important source of protein and oil in many developing countries they say.

Scientists had planned to collect samples of wild groundnut (or peanut) species before construction of the pipeline is completed. But their work has been delayed indefinitely because the Bolivian government has refused to authorise such collection following indigenous groups' opposition to the pipeline project.

"Although the pipeline is bringing much-needed natural gas to Brazil, the stakes are high," says David Williams, an ethnobotanist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Cali, Colombia. "The species we are looking for could eliminate much of the need for peanut farmers to use pesticides and also help them to cope with drought and disease."

The pipeline, which runs through the Gran Chaco region of southeast Bolivia, has opened up remote areas to settlers and large-scale agriculture. "These are places where wild peanuts have survived undisturbed for thousands of years," says Williams. Indigenous groups oppose the pipeline and, in their efforts to stop further encroachment, they have also ironically disrupted the collection of native plant species.

"The backlash from the pipeline controversy has inadvertently put pressure on the Bolivian government to withhold the permits that scientists need to remove wild peanut samples for safekeeping," says Williams. "But we have strong support from Bolivia's Ministry of the Environment and from the Bolivian scientific community who recognise what's at stake if we don't get in there in time and start collecting."

If the ban is lifted, samples would be provided to Bolivian research organisations, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the world peanut collection at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in Hyderbad, India, which houses nearly 15,000 different types of cultivated and wild peanuts.

Groundnut is one of the world's most important food crops. But they are susceptible to many pests and diseases that can greatly reduce yields. Researchers think that over the centuries farmers and plant breeders have unintentionally "switched off" many useful genes that were present in early varieties of the crop.

"If we can put back into modern varieties some of the disease and drought-resistant genes from the ancient ancestors of groundnut, we should be able to give Asian and African farmers a helping hand," says William Dar, director general of ICRISAT. "It's an achievable goal, but will require us to move quickly before the native habitat of the crop's ancestors is further altered."

From SciDev.Net 17 Dec 2002 For more information, visit the Future Harvest website at:


GM potato could feed India's poor

Protein-rich genetically modified potatoes could form part of a 15-year plan to combat malnutrition among India's poorest children.

The 'protato', which has been developed by researchers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, contains a third more protein than usual, including substantial amounts of the essential amino acids lysine and methionine. Lysine deficiency, for example, can impair brain development in children.

The potato is in the final stages of testing, and the Indian government is currently considering whether to include it as part of its anti-hunger plan.

From SciDev.Net, 2 Jan 2003


India sets new rules against biopiracy

[NEW DELHI] The Indian Parliament has approved a biodiversity law that seeks to make it more difficult for foreign companies to exploit its biological resources.

The government argues that the bill, which promotes conservation and protects traditional knowledge through a three-level regulatory structure, provides important safeguards against misuse of India's biological resources by multinational corporations.

But many environmentalists are unconvinced about how effective the legislation will be. They complain that the bill is too weak, and argue that it will serve simply to increase bureaucracy.

The new law will create a National Biodiversity Authority in Chennai, as well as state biodiversity boards and local biodiversity management committees.

It also imposes a prison sentence of up to five years, or a fine of US$20,000, for those who export biological resources for research or commercial use, who seek patents abroad on inventions based on Indian biological resources, or who transfer the results of Indian research on biological resources abroad without approval.

Indian environment minister T R Baalu says the legislation will provide an acceptable form of access to genetic resources and associated knowledge by foreign companies and institutes. It also paves the way for equitable sharing of benefits from these resources by local communities, he says. India has been the focus of some contentious patents in the past, for example on turmeric and basmati rice.

"It is a step in the right direction," says Ashish Kothari, head of the technical committee for the National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan, which is to be announced shortly. "The bill gives the framework to strictly regulate the transfer of Indian resources and knowledge and to reduce biopiracy. It's now up to the government and citizens to use it proactively."

But critics say that the three-tier management structure is confusing, and will increase the amount of bureaucracy. "By adding committee upon committee and board upon board, it has simply added more bureaucracy to the process and [will] alienate local people," says Vandana Shiva, director of the Uttar Predesh-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.

Suman Sahai, head of Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation in New Delhi, argues that the bill will only create more confusion by either duplicating or contradicting existing laws such as the Forest Conservation Act and the Environment Protection Act. She says, for example, that it is unclear how the proposed biodiversity heritage sites will be demarcated or financed, or how they relate to existing protected areas and national parks.

Sahai says the bill is also inadequate in terms of intellectual property rights, as it does not take a clear stand on the kinds of patents that should be allowed on biological materials.

The bill's major weakness, its critics argue, concerns access to and use of indigenous resources and knowledge by foreign companies and institutes. The bill stipulates that the National Biodiversity Authority will deal with access by foreigners. But a clause that access restrictions for foreign institutes will not apply to research collaborations approved by the federal government may turn into a loophole, cautions Shiva.

Both Baalu and Kothari, however, are optimistic that stringent rules will ensure that such loopholes do not occur. Also, they say, subsidiary rules and guidelines could be written to ensure transparency and public involvement in the screening of biodiversity project proposals, and to ensure that the rights are indigenous communities are respected.

India covers only 2.4 per cent of the world's land area, but accounts for 7.3 per cent of the global fauna. It is considered the origin of 30,000 to 50,000 varieties of crops and is home to two "hotspots" the Western Ghats and eastern Himalayas. It has five world heritage sites, 12 biosphere reserves and six wetlands.

From SciDev.Net, 13 Dec 2002


The importance of local knowledge in conserving crop diversity Dindo Campilan

Local knowledge is a resource that develops, becomes shared, and is used by a particular social group (for example a farming community, social network or ethnic group) in the pursuit of certain goals and interests. It generally emerges from people's direct experiences as they learn deliberately or by chance about their biophysical and social environments. It may also include knowledge handed down from previous generations, shared by other communities, and acquired from external research institutions. Thus it forms a body of knowledge that usually extends beyond the indigenous, traditional and technical. Since it is shaped by particular social, cultural, physical and temporal contexts, local knowledge is inherently diverse. Local knowledge has historically served as an important resource for farming communities in managing their livelihoods, and in continuously adapting to changes in their environment. Gaining a full understanding of the knowledge that exists in a local community is therefore a necessary first step for agricultural research and development programmes. In this paper we will look at the role local knowledge plays in the conservation and cultivation of sweetpotato an important crop for farmers in Southeast Asia, but one that is neglected by formal science in favour of cereals and other commercial food crops.

SciDev.Net 2002 Dindo M. Campilan is social scientist at the International Potato Center and coordinates the UPWARD Network based in Los Banos, the Philippines. (Email:


World planting of biotech crops up 12 pct in 2002

Reuters January 17, 2003

GEORGETOWN, Grand Cayman - Planting of biotech crops spread at a double-digit rate for the sixth consecutive year in 2002, an international agriculture group said.

Planting grew 12 percent last year and the global market value of genetically modified crops rose to about $4.25 billion, up from $3.8 billion in 2001, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, which promotes GM crops, said in an announcement.

The figures could heat up the debate over the safety of biotech crops, which has grown into a trade dispute between the United States and the European Union.

All told, 16 countries are producing GM versions of corn, cotton, canola and soybeans engineered with a variety of special traits, such as increased productivity and resistance to pests.

Moreover, more than 20 percent of the world's acreage for those four key crops is now planted with biotech seeds, according to the agricultural group.

The gains come despite resistance in Europe and other regions to biotech crops, which are plants whose gene sequence has been spliced with that of other species. Critics say they have not been proven safe and could harm the environment.

The United States is increasingly chaffing under European restrictions on imports, and U.S. farmers say they have lost hundreds of millions of dollars of sales to Europe.

Last week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said he favored filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the European Union, alleging the EU is illegally maintaining a 4-year moratorium on approvals of new biotech products.

Clive James, chairman of the agriculture group, said widespread consumption of biotech crops in the United States and elsewhere since their introduction in 1996 was evidence that health fears about biotech foods are unfounded. And he said annual growth in plantings of biotech crops will continue.

He projected the global value of the GM crop market would hit $5 billion by 2005.

"An increasing number of countries have confidence in this technology," James said from his Grand Cayman office. "We have an increasing body of evidence to show that... this is acceptable."

But critics of biotech crops said pressure from producers like Monsanto Co. (MON.N) and the U.S. government is forcing some nations into accepting them even as public concern grows.

"There is a lot of pressure on Third World countries to just accept this," said Anuradha Mittal, director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy in California. "But resistance is growing around the world."

Still, last year, more than 5.5 million farmers planted GM crops on 58.7 million hectares, or 145 million acres, up 12 percent from 2001, according to the agriculture group.

Along with the United States, which accounts for about 66 percent of the world's total GM crop area, Argentina, Canada, and China produced biotech crops last year. China, in particular, saw significant growth, showing a 40 percent increase in farm fields growing Bt cotton, a crop engineered to protect itself from insects. The increase marked the first time that the Bt cotton area in China exceeded more than half of the national cotton area.

Three countries joined the list last year of those growing GM crops as India and Colombia grew Bt cotton for the first time, and Honduras became the first country in Central America to grow Bt corn.

GM soybeans are the most popular of the biotech crops, accounting for 62 percent of the world's GM-crop planted area, with corn second at 21 percent.

From AgBioView Jan 17, 2003


Doubling wildrye's chromosomes brightens pasture grass' future ARS News Service Agricultural Research Service, USDA

It's amazing what 14 more chromosomes can do for Russian wildrye, a pasture grass introduced to the U.S. Northern Plains area from Siberia in 1927.

John Berdahl, a plant geneticist with the Agricultural Research Service, has created Russian wildrye plants that are called tetraploids because they have double the usual 14 chromosomes. The extra chromosomes result in a plant that produces larger seeds and much more robust seedlings, solving the biggest barrier to wider use of the grass.

Russian wildrye helps keep cattle well fed by providing forage with higher digestibility and protein, especially in late summer and fall when other grasses, such as crested wheatgrass, tend to become less nutritious. But farmers and ranchers still often choose those other grasses because they're easier to grow.

Berdahl, plant physiologist Al Frank and colleagues at the ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan, N.D., hope to change that by using tetraploids to breed new Russian wildrye varieties. They expect to one day see them planted extensively on marginal land in the Northern Plains and Intermountain Region.

Berdahl and colleagues created the new plants without any gene transfer or sophisticated biotechnology. Instead, they induced chromosome doubling by pressurizing flower-bearing stalks in canisters filled with nitrous oxide gas. Nitrous oxide is commonly known as "laughing gas." The nitrous oxide technique enables production of numerous tetraploid seeds and development of genetically diverse populations from which to select superior plants.

It will take about five years to release the first tetraploid Russian wildrye variety to seed growers. Then it will take a few more years for seed growers to produce enough pedigreed seed for sale to farmers, bringing the new variety to market around 2010.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.


Superb new spuds from ARS potato breeders ARS News Service Agricultural Research Service, USDA

A perfectly baked potato, topped with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of chives, makes a hearty addition to supper on a cold winter evening. Agricultural Research Service potato breeders and their university and industry colleagues are helping bring newer and better potatoes from research fields to your fork.

These improved potatoes resist attack by natural enemies such as microbes that cause plant diseases. And, some of the new varieties hold up in cold storage better than their predecessors--an especially important trait for potatoes that need to be set aside until there's time to process them into fries, for instance. That's according to Richard G. Novy, a plant geneticist with the ARS Small Grains and Potato Germplasm Research Unit at Aberdeen, Idaho, about 200 miles southeast of Boise.

The Aberdeen potato-breeding research is among the best known in the nation. ARS scientists work with university co-investigators in Washington, Oregon and Idaho as part of the Northwest Potato Variety Development Program. This program produced, for example, Ranger Russet potato. Made available to potato breeders and seed growers in 1991, Ranger Russet is now the third most-widely planted potato variety in the United States.

More recently, the team has developed such tasty new tubers as Alturas. In tests in three Western states, Alturas yielded 37 percent more tubers than Russet Burbank, the industry standard. Other examples include Ivory Crisp, a round, white potato ideal for processing into chips, and Klamath Russet, a fresh-market potato that researchers showed was ideal for planting in the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon and northern California.

Potatoes are a convenient source of fiber, vitamin C and potassium.

An article in the current issue of the ARS monthly journal, Agricultural Research, tells more about progress in potato breeding. It is on the World Wide Web at:


University of Georgia researchers find first active 'jumping genes' in rice Arlington, Virginia

University of Georgia researchers studying rice genomes under a National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program award have identified the species' first active DNA transposons, or "jumping genes."

The research is published in the Jan. 9 edition of the journal Nature. In collaboration with researchers from Cornell, Washington University and Japan, geneticist Susan Wessler also discovered the first active "miniature inverted-repeat transposable element," or "MITE," of any organism.

Rice (Oryza sativa), an important food crop worldwide, has the smallest genome size of all cereals at 430 million base pairs of DNA. About 40 percent of the rice genome comprises repetitive DNA that does not code for proteins and thus has no obvious function for the plant. Much of this repetitive sequence appears to be transposons similar to MITEs. But like most genomes studied to date, including the human genome, the function of this highly repeated so-called "junk DNA" has been a mystery. The discovery of active transposons in rice provides startling new insights into how genomes change and what role transposons may play in the process.

Active DNA transposons can move new copies of DNA to different places in the genome. To hunt for active DNA transposons, the researchers made use of the publicly available genome sequences for two subspecies of rice, japonica and indica. The researchers reasoned that in plants where such transposons move actively there would be multiple copies of an almost identical sequence. If they could find the conserved sequences in the two rice genomes, then they could test for transposon movement in cell cultures because the number of elements should have increased over time.

Using this approach, the researchers found a repeated sequence of 430 base pairs that was identified as a candidate for an active MITE because of the high degree of sequence conservation among the copies. Recognizing that it shared common size and other characteristics with MITEs, they named it "mPing" for "miniature Ping." They calculated that the entire genome of japonica rice contained about 70 copies of mPing, while indica rice had about 14 copies. When they looked in indica rice cell cultures, the number of mPing elements increased, suggesting that it was indeed actively transposing.

It was puzzling to understand how mPing could transpose, since MITEs do not code for any proteins and are thus unable to move on their own. The researchers reasoned that there must be another "autonomous" transposon that encodes proteins, enabling itself and other related elements to move. To find this autonomous element, the researchers compared the mPing sequence with the japonica and indica rice genome sequences to look for longer, related elements. They found two candidates: a long version called the "Ping" sequence and another shorter sequence they named "Pong." Ping lacked functional coding sequence and was also found only in japonica rice as a single copy. On the other hand, Pong was present in high copy numbers in all varieties, contained appropriate coding sequences, and also increased in number along with mPing during cell culture. This led the researchers to suspect that Pong, not Ping, is the autonomous element that causes mPing to transpose. It is also possible, the researchers speculate, that Ping and Pong may co-activate mPing in some cases.

Wessler and her collaborators have shed new light on the idea that transposons may be instrumental in promoting the diversity of plants during domestication. Their work meshes with an idea, raised almost 20 years ago by Nobel Prize-winning maize geneticist Barbara McClintock, that transposons are part of the dynamic forces shaping plant genomes. The research findings will help researchers unravel the events leading to the origin, spread, and disappearance of miniature transposons. Remarkably, MITEs make up a large part of the non coding DNA in plant genomes. Through studies of transposons such as MITEs, researchers will begin to understand the impact of so called "junk DNA" on the dynamic structure and function of the genomes of all organisms.

NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering through an annual budget of nearly $5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 30,000 competitive requests for funding and makes about 10,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards more than $200 million annually in professional and service contracts.


Screening Soybeans for Phytophthora Resistance

A Queensland Department of Primary Industry (QDPI) team working within the Grains Research & Development Corporation supported National Soybean Improvement Program is screening more than 300 soybean lines for phytopthora resistance.

Pathologist Malcolm Ryley said large QDPI databases of breeding line reactions to phytopthora strains collected in Australia over the last 20 years were being used in the project. The databases, the only ones of their kind in Australia, enabled quick access to information on breeding lines being considered for release as new varieties and helped in monitoring soybean strains. "It is essential we maintain a good knowledge of the soybean phytopthora strains in different regions, because it allows us to detect any changes in the populations," Dr Ryley said. "To do this we make annual surveys in most soybean growing areas of Australia." Dr Ryley said gene pyramiding would assure soybean growers of multi-layered phytopthora resistance, as opposed to single gene resistances that have caused problems in the past, particularly in NSW. One of the exciting breakthroughs in the research was identification of a new phytopthora resistant gene in the US, the first found in 15 years. The gene would be introduced to Australia after quarantine requirements were met, and tested for resistance to Australian races of phytopthora.

SciDev.Net, December 17, 2002


ARS News Service Agricultural Research Service, USDA

Nematode-resistant varieties of hybrid bell peppers may soon offer desirable characteristics possessed by nonresistant types. This is because Agricultural Research Service scientists at the U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, S.C., have bred an experimental hybrid that inherits its resistance from just one of its parent varieties.

Nematodes are microscopic roundworms that cause millions of dollars in annual damages to crops nationwide. Root-knot nematodes are a major problem for bell pepper growers.

The hybrid, developed for research purposes by plant pathologist Judy A. Thies and geneticist Richard L. Fery, shows that nematode-resistant bell pepper hybrids can be developed by crossing a resistant, open-pollinated bell pepper type with varieties lacking the key resistance gene but possessing other positive characteristics such as large fruits or resistance to disease. The new hybrid is as resistant as hybrids developed by crossing two resistant pepper varieties.

The hybrid marks the latest success from ARS research in nematode-resistant bell peppers at the Charleston laboratory. In 1997, Fery released Charleston Belle and Carolina Wonder, the first bell peppers resistant to root-knot nematodes.

Those peppers' resistance stems from what is called the N gene, which Fery obtained from Mississippi Nemaheart, a pimiento pepper variety that carries the resistance gene. The gene controls resistance to three major root-knot nematode species: Meloidogyne incognita, M. arenaria and M. javanica.

The experimental hybrid was developed by crossing the resistant Charleston Belle with Keystone Resistant Giant, which lacks the N gene.

Progress with nematode-resistant crop varieties is significant because the soil fumigant methyl bromide, the primary control method now used to combat the parasites, is scheduled to be banned in 2005 because of its negative effects on the ozone layer. A 1995 economic study declared that banning methyl bromide without an alternative method of controlling nematodes would cost the nation's bell pepper industry $127 million in losses.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Wheat varieties for dry seasons

A Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) wheat physiologist believes it will be possible to develop wheat varieties that combine high yield and tolerance of moisture stress while maintaining grain size. The Leslie Research Centrešs Jack Christopher says the dry conditions of 2002 highlight the need for wheat varieties that yield more than current commercial varieties in dry years, while maintaining grain size to reduce the problem of downgrading because of screenings. Dr Christopher says he has developed a way of identifying wheat lines with these characteristics that can be used in breeding programs. This was always difficult because of the complex interactions possible between a number of genes but QDPI researchers had been able to simplify the problem by breaking it down into its component processes. "This new approach integrates components of crop modelling, physiological measurement and genetic mapping," Dr Christopher said. "Recent advances in these areas have combined to make the research possible. The technology used is similar used in the highly successful, stay-green grain sorghum program led by Dr Andrew Borrell and Dr Graeme Hammer." Dr Christopher said it might be possible to achieve a yield increase of 10 to 12 per cent over standard wheat varieties in seasons of below average rainfall, while maintaining grain size., January 2, 2003


New chickpea research at the Centre For Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture

Challenging WA environments have again tested researchers, this time with wild yield variations in extra-large seeded kabuli chickpea in the Ord River Irrigation Scheme (ORIA).The ORIA extends 350 km inland from the state's far north, covering 47,000 km˛ and collecting annual rainfall ranging from 800 450 mm across the region. It sustains a $1 million per annum chickpea industry.However, ORIA chickpea growers have faced erratic fortunes, with average yields bouncing from 2.0 3.5 tonnes per hectare and neighbouring crops varying from 1.0 4.0 t/ha.But pioneering research, supported by the Grains Research & Development Corporation (GRDC), at the Department of Agriculture and the Centre For Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture (CLIMA), simultaneously aimed to generate agronomic packages to stabilise yields and develop alternate varieties to the incumbent, Macarena.The ORIA chickpea industry enjoys strong market demand and with consistent production and quality, this could grow to an annual production value of $4 million, according to project leader and CLIMA Director, Kadambot Siddique.Grower surveys and field trials identified irrigation timing and seed-bed height as the dominant factors affecting performance and broad adoption of more uniform management strategies is stabilising yields in the area.Based on understanding environments where irrigated large seeded chickpea was produced in other parts of the world, Professor Siddique, as part of the GRDC funded project, imported novel plant germplasm from Spain and Mexico, via the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas.Fifty-five of the international lines and 20 genotypes selected from 'off-type' Macarena plants were tested for quality, yield and agronomic characteristics at Kununurra between 1998 -2002. Seed colour and cooking tests of the three best lines at the Department of Agriculture's Pulse Quality Laboratory confirmed they had similar or superior qualities to Macarena, with 13 to 23 per cent higher yields and larger seed size than Macarena. In the 2003 season, the three lines will undergo further commercial bulk up by growers in the ORIA."One of the above lines also generated interest in Central Queensland and may be commercially released in that state, while we aim to release one of these lines as a new variety to ORIA growers in 2004," Professor Siddique said.


5. ON THE WEB The Rockefeller Foundation Food Security Program sponsors a web site on Improvement of African Crops and Seed Supply Systems. It includes sections on breeding and biotechnology, and currently an on-line discussion forum on cassava breeding in Africa. Within the above web page, click on "Discussion page."


In collaboration with Future Harvest Centers, CGIAR and FAO/WAICENT. The Info Finder allows you to search for digital information on the Future Harvest Centers', CGIAR and FAO web sites.



Will Seedbanks be 'Obsolete and Worthless' in Future?

- Dave Wood (posted in AgBioView, Jan 8, 2003 and reproduced here with permission of the author)

There is a stark contrast between the views (AgBioView -January 7) of Andrew Apel, that 'native landraces' stored in seedbanks are 'obsolete and worthless' and in future will be fed to cows and pigs; and Don Kennedy, that there is a 'long-term requirement for crop diversity conservation' and the need for a Global Conservation Trust fund targeted initially at $260 million to conserve seeds.

I side with Andrew. The Global Conservation Trust (GCT) is a sledgehammer to crack a nut; moving funds from where they are needed (advanced plant breeding and seed systems) to where they are not (yet more conservation), and raises multiple questions. What do we need to conserve? How best to conserve it? And how will samples be used?

What to conserve: The great bulk of the many millions of samples stored at great expense globally will never be used. There are three reasons for this. First, there are not nearly enough plant breeders now to continually trawl through a vast range of poor-quality varieties (solution more plant breeders and more biotech, rather than yet more storage).

Second, major collections have already been mined for genes, and these genes have been transferred to advanced lines and released varieties (solution conserve the advanced lines and older commercial varieties, now more valuable and more threatened than stored landraces as breeders retire, and commercial varieties are superseded and abandoned).

Third, with advancing breeding technology wild relatives will become more valuable than landraces (solution, concentrate research on a small number of actively evolving wild relatives instead of the vast range of moribund and obsolete landraces). An example from wheat: of the first twenty genes identified for leaf rust resistance, 18 were from bread wheat varieties; yet all 18 of the most recently identified resistance genes were from wild relatives, rather than bread wheat itself. Biotech will further increase the value of wild relatives, and they are still out there in the field evolving resistance to what Don calls 'novel pathogens, arising from sudden genetic alteration or from delivery by an agroterrorist'.

How best to conserve? First, for wild species, obviously best in their natural habitats, rather than frozen in genebanks. Second, for landraces, the bulk of the genetic variation has now been assigned to 'core collections' (about 10% of total samples), or extracted as advanced lines. For the all-important cereals, with appropriate seed drying and simple packing, I could store global core collections of wheat, rice and maize at the back of my garage for at least 25-50 years at no storage cost whatever and minimal loss of viability. If seed really is a 'global heritage' and essential for future food security it could be 'mothballed' in a dozen secure locations for much less than the $12 million that the World Bank is about to spend upgrading the CGIAR genebanks, and perhaps at 1% of the cost of the GCT.

Anyone who thinks the $260 million Global Conservation Trust is better than the (free) back of my garage should check the proposed governance of the GCT at . This reveals a nightmare of expensive international bureaucracy and 'jobs-for the-boys'. Anyone subscribing to the GCT is wasting money: this is the tail wagging the dog.

How to use samples? There is no value in conserving samples unless they are to be used. The bottleneck is not, and from now on never will be, sample availability: it is utilization through breeding, evaluation, biotech, trials networks, and seed distribution systems. At a time when breeding and seed system support in the CGIAR is collapsing under the World Bank environmental focus, more funding for conservation is definitely a distraction.

Significantly, those calling for a greater investment in seed storage - including FAO, IPGRI (a non-breeding institute of the CGIAR) and various NGOs - are not breeders or hands-on crop scientists. My personal view, after spending five years managing international genebanks, and a further four years collecting landraces, is that the major constraint farmers anywhere face is a reliable seed system and access to new varieties (and definitely not, as Andrew correctly indicates, access to obsolete landraces).

A question that is never asked is: What would we do if all stored genebank samples were lost tomorrow? I am fairly certain that with our human ingenuity we could manage very well indeed, through reliance on breeders' collections of advanced lines; re-collecting landraces (and certainly wild relatives many of which are poorly represented in existing collections); investing in more biotech; using the released varieties of other countries in breeding (as China, the source of soybean landraces, is doing with US commercial soybean varieties); and enhancing seed systems at all levels to deliver the results of breeding.

The analogy put forward by NGOs that crop varieties are like wild species, once lost they are gone forever is entirely spurious. Any competent farmer can generate new varieties at will, by selecting from apparent 'off-types' in the crop (the source of Golding and Fuggles hops, Cox Pippin apple, Fife wheat, Chevalier barley, and a host of unnamed selections by skilled farmers in developing countries). For crop varieties, extinction is not forever: there is a continual varietal evolution and turnover that collecting and seed stores fail to capture.

Finally - a hobby-horse of mine. Don's repeated concern is 'the liability of the monocultures of our major cereal grains'. 'Monoculture' is in danger of becoming a buzz-word used increasingly by people who don't know what they are talking about.

There is nothing whatever wrong with cereal monocultures. Early farmers domesticated our major cereals from extensive monodominant stands of wild relatives. There is no evidence at all that these persistent wild stands (relatives of rice, wheat, barley, sorghum and pearl millet) were vulnerable to disease and pests, rather the opposite they were tough. Modern monoculture cropping is a direct descendent of these stable wild monocultures; it is as 'ecologically correct' as possible; and still provides most of our food. There is no example of famine in modern times resulting only from the vulnerability of monocultures. Yet there are numerous historical examples of famines from diverse landrace agriculture.

The worst case that can be found of cereal vulnerability was the Southern Corn Leaf Blight, which affected maize in the US in 1970. This was a key stimulus to the expansion of national and global seed collections (of which there are now far too many). Yet this disease was nothing to do with monocultures it was result of an over-reliance on limited genetic variation in a widespread crop. Always ignored was the rapid recovery of US maize production the following season.

Since the 1930s, and as a result of top quality agricultural science, US maize yields have shown a steady and remarkable increase. There was a tiny dip in 1970 as a result of blight, and by 1971, yield had increased beyond the trend line. Rather than a failure, the immediate recovery from the 1970 blight was an outstanding success of forward-looking breeding, seed production, and monoculture cropping (rather than filling genebanks with landraces and fields with unmanageable crop mixtures).

It is not possible to justify the millions of samples stored in genebanks by claims that cereal monocultures are especially vulnerable to disease: they are not. Monocultures are robust cropping systems based on robust natural analogues. Biotech can make them yet more robust and ecologically correct.

-- - Dr. Dave Wood of UK has worked on germplasm research and gene banks around the world.