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A Blast From The Past?

Is it just me, or does there seem to be a lot about the so-called “rewilding” of crop plants in the news lately? (Please see here, for example.)

I think I first heard the term “rewilding” about 20 years ago in a Biology Department seminar at Montana State University. In this case, the term “rewilding” was used in the context of conservation biology.

Simply put, rewilding, as a means of ecological restoration, has to do with reintroducing apex predators or keystone species into an environment. (Think wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park, for example.)

But the recently-newsworthy “rewilding” of crop plants refers to something quite different. Instead of physically reintroducing “wild” species into “domesticated” ecosystems, crop plant rewilding has to do with genetically reintroducing “wild” genes back into the “domesticated” genomes of crop plants.

Of course, this can be done via traditional plant breeding techniques such as crossing a crop plant species with a wild relative.

But the main reason for the recent increased interest in the rewilding of crop plants is the emergence of new plant breeding techniques (NBTs) that are more precise and much faster than traditional “introgression” plant breeding.

“Introgression breeding is the standard method used to introduce genes and traits from wild plants into domesticated crops. This method uses an initial cross between the crop and the wild relative of interest followed by repeated backcrossing to the domesticated crop to erase as much genetic material from the wild relative as possible while keeping the trait of interest. Molecular markers can be used to track the trait of interest through the crosses, a process called ‘marker-assisted breeding’. However, introgression breeding is time consuming and technically challenging when more than one gene is being selected for, and it is often difficult to get rid of closely linked undesired genes.” (from Ref. 1 below)

Some of these new plant breeding techniques rely on powerful new ways to edit DNA (more about this later on).

Some of these NBTs involve methods of genetic engineering that allow for “rewilding” in such a way that the final crop can’t be distinguished from a crop bred by traditional means. Therefore, some scientists see a natural place for ‘rewilded’ plants in organic farming.

Because no “foreign” genes (from another species) are present in genetically-engineered, rewilded crop plants, will that render these GMO’s more socially acceptable?

More on this fascinating topic to come….

Reference

1. Andersen, M. M., et al. (2015) “Feasibility of new breeding techniques for organic farming.” Trends in Plant Science, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2015.04.011. (Full Text)

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