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Tech Tuesday

Stealing from the 'Enemy'

Breeders turn to wild oat genes, scientists say biotech needed to feed the world and a new genome sequence offers biofuel crop insight.

Plant breeders will look anywhere for good genetics to improve food crops, but stealing from the enemy? Turns out that's what USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists are doing for oats in the long battle against crown rust. Scientists have turned to wild oats for genes that may stop the fungal disease. Crown rust cuts oat yields by up to 40%, according to USDA. And the disease can adapt to varieties bred with genetic resistance.

ARS researchers inserted individual resistance genes into oat varieties that produce proteins believed to recognize strains of crown rust and trigger a defense response. And "multiline" cultivars with several resistance genes have been developed. Scientists turned to a wild variety - Avena barbata for new genes that offer resistance. They inoculated wild oat plants with crow rust and after several crosses they found seedlings could beat back a range of crown rust strains.

Researchers are hard at work to develop the right blend of resistance and desirable plant traits - like yield and drought tolerance. The goal is new plant lines to fight off crown rust for many years. Currently, the disease has been able to circumvent resistance breeding approaches in as little as five seasons.

Scientists to Government Officials: Stop Worrying about Biotech! An international panel of scientists writing in a February issue of Science called on world leaders to alter their notions about sustainable agriculture to prevent major starvation by the end of this century. This panel is urging world leaders to "get beyond popular biases against the use of agricultural biotechnology" particularly for crops modified to produce greater yields and harsher conditions, and to base the regulation of these crops on the best available science.

The scientists warn of a 20 to 30% decline in production yields in the next 50 years for major crops in areas where temperatures could rise the fastest. This panel is asking scientists and world leaders to begin thinking in dramatically different ways to meet food needs in a significantly warmer world. The lead author of the article is Nina Federoff, science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Oh, and for the climate-change skeptics among our readers, the group still urges biotech use because "even without climate change, feeding all of those people will require doubling grain production in the tropics," according to a press statement. And biotech is the best tool to accomplish that no matter where climate goes.

Model Crop Gets Genetic Profile USDA scientists and colleagues at the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute have announced they've completed sequencing the genome of a kind of wild grass that will enable researchers to get a better idea of the genetics behind hardier varieties of wheat and improved types of biofuel crops.

The scientists have looked at Brachypodium distachyon which can be used just like other researchers use mice in a lab. It becomes a model organism similar to, but easier to grow and study than important ag crops, including wheat and barley. The effort also supports cellulosic biofuel research because the brachypodium genome is a lot like that of switchgrass, but the smaller genome from brachypodium will make it easier to find genes linked to specific traits.

Model genomic approaches are not a new idea - a lot of work has been done with Arabidopsis thaliana - a kind of weed known by many as mouse-ear cress that has a smaller genome and has helped with finding key traits as well. The model genome approach - using a simpler plant to target trait genes - can speed development of a range of improvements.

One challenge this brachypodium work may help overcome is the difficulty in breaking down cell walls in switchgrass. This is an essential step in producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass. This model genome approach could hold the key for finding ways to produce plants with cell walls that are easier to process.

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