Plants are regularly challenged by a variety of environmental stresses such as drought, flooding, salt, and low-nutrient levels. These stresses negatively affect plant growth and reduce the productivity of crops. Many wild plants have evolved mechanisms to meet these challenges while domesticated crops are less resilient. Understanding the mechanisms that wild plants use will enable the development of improved crop varieties than can be grown on lands that are currently unsuitable for crops and, in the face of changing climatic conditions, help to feed a rapidly growing global population.
“This project has broad implications for British Columbians, Canadians and people around the world because stress-resistant crops will improve food security,” says Dr. Alan Winter, President & CEO of Genome BC. “The ability to understand the mechanisms allowing plants to mitigate these stressors will enable the development of crops capable of growing in previously unsuitable habitats and bring previously marginal farmlands into production.”
Sunflowers are an ideal model system for better understanding mechanisms that plants use to combat environmental stresses because their wild counterparts have adapted to a variety of extreme habitats. A $7.9 million project funded by Genome British Columbia, Genome Canada and other partners is investigating how wild sunflower plants have become more resistant to environmental stressors. The international team, led by the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Dr. Loren Rieseberg and the University of Georgia’s John Burke, is focusing on the genetic basis of stress resistance. Worldwide sunflower production generates approximately $20 billion in revenue and is the only oilseed in the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s list of 25 priority food security crops. Because it is grown widely in developing countries for food, the project is partnering with leading public and private sector sunflower breeding programs around the world, including in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“Stress-resistant cultivars will stabilize production in the face of environmental stressors in Sub-Saharan Africa, thereby reducing the potential for malnutrition and its social and economic costs,” says Dr. Rieseberg, Professor and Canada Research Chair, Department of Botany, UBC. “Such cultivars will also be better adapted to new climates that are predicted for Canada and developing countries.”
The project, Genomics of abiotic stress resistance in wild and cultivated sunflowers, will identify and fully characterize the genetic basis of stress resistance in sunflowers and create resources that will enable partners from the public and private sectors to efficiently breed stress-resistant, high-yield cultivars. The team will also develop models to predict likely yields of the new cultivars in different soil and climate conditions across Canada. In addition, the team will address the role of international treaties in sharing plant genetic resources developed from this project for growers in Canada and around the world.
The expanded sunflower production made possible in Canada by the new cultivars is expected to yield up to $230 million USD annually after ten years. Worldwide, the impact will be substantial, as no other oilseed can maintain the stable yields across as wide a range of environmental conditions as that predicted for the new sunflower cultivars.
The project was funded through Genome Canada’s 2014 Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition: Genomics and Feeding the Future. In addition to Genome BC and Genome Canada, other funding partners the include the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), University of Georgia, Global Crop Diversity Trust, Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA) Toulouse, KWS Seeds, Advanta Semillas SAIC, Biogemma, Nuseed Americas and SAP AG.