The return on investment in crop genomics research is manifold but to realize the full potential and reap optimum benefits from it, there is a need for enhanced strategic investment in upstream research and enabling an environment for adoption of these technologies at large scale, Dr Rajeev K Varshney opined recently during a virtual talk.
Speaking at the virtual regional workshop on “Investment in modern agricultural biotechnology and its socio-economic impact on livelihoods of farmers in Asia-Pacific”, Dr Varshney highlighted some of the key areas where genomics research has made or exhibits significant potential to make an impact. Some of those areas are: a) Higher produce and more income to farmers, b) Better nutrition to society, c) Generating or saving revenues to national governments, d) Faster varietal development with higher precision and lower cost, e) translating genomics intelligence from one crop to other crops and f) Environmental sustainability. The workshop was organized by the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI) under its Asia-Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology and Bioresources (APCoAB) program on 2 August 2021.
Genomics-assisted breeding (GAB) has delivered high-yielding varieties in several crops and adoption of such varieties can provide higher produce and more income to smallholder farmers. For example, the new chickpea varieties: PUSA (BMG) 10216 has shown a higher yield of 11.9% over PUSA 372, Super Annigeri-1 MABC-WR-SA-1 has shown increased yield potential of 7% over Annigeri-1 and PUSA Chickpea 20211 (aka Pusa Chickpea Manav) has recorded yield potential of 3915 kg/ha under wilt stress condition over the recurrent parent PUSA 391 which yielded 1877 kg/ha.
Similarly, Geletu, the first-ever high yielding chickpea variety developed through GAB and released in Ethiopia, has delivered the highest grain yield of 3822 kg/ha at Arsi Robe, Ethiopia, which translates into a yield advantage of 15% over the check variety ‘Teketay’ and 78% more than local check.
In the case of delivering higher nutrition for consumers and society, there are varieties developed through GAB that are delivering results on this front. For example, Girnar 4 and Girnar 5 groundnut varieties have kernel oleic acid content of about 80% (of total fat content) as against 40-50% in normal groundnut. Oleic acid reduces low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (considered ‘bad’ cholesterol) and maintains high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels or ‘good’ cholesterol, making groundnuts healthier than they already are.
Similarly, in the case of maize, improved hybrids like PUSA Vivek QPM9, HQPM7 are provitamin-A rich hybrids and PMH1 and PMH6 are low phytate maize hybrids developed through GAB.
High-yielding varieties developed through GAB can enhance national crop production and the surplus produce can be exported to other countries, providing more revenues. For example, Basmati, high-quality rice has been the major agricultural export commodity in India that has earned foreign exchange to the tune of US$ 4.4 billion during 2019-2020. Improved Basmati rice varieties (Pusa Samba 1850, Improved Samba Mahsuri, DRR DHAN 42 and DRR DHAN 57) resistant to various diseases developed through GAB will be helpful to improve export revenue. On the other hand, high yielding GAB varieties can help countries save lower import costs.
With the adoption of GAB approaches in crop breeding programs, the time duration for each generation, which usually takes one generation per year in the field, can be advanced to 2-3 generations per year in greenhouses. Furthermore, with the Speed Breeding approach, this can be advanced to 4- 6 generations per year, by shortening the breeding cycle and rapid generation advancement, thereby ensuring faster varietal development in half the time it takes through traditional approach.
Secondly, GAB approaches are helpful to avoid/ minimize linkage drag through a precise selection of lines for a specific trait with the help of molecular markers and thus are cheaper as this saves costs incurred on generation advances/ field trials of larger populations.
Translating genomics intelligence from one crop to other crops is another important aspect of GAB approaches. For example, the genes in the pearl millet crop responsible for its ability to withstand a soaring temperature of over 420C and its exceptional drought tolerance can be used for improving heat and drought tolerance in other cereal crops like rice, maize and wheat. Similarly, in the case of legumes, the genome sequence of pigeonpea helped in the identification of one gene (CcRpp1) conferring full resistance to Asian soybean rust in soybean. Such examples show that a genome sequencing of one crop can be helpful not only in that crop, but can also serve as a resource for developing improved varieties with desired traits in other crop species.
Another important area where GAB can create significant impact is towards environmental sustainability. In traditional breeding approaches, the varieties are prone to biotic stresses like pest and disease, calling for treatment with several fungicides, insecticides and other pesticides, costing huge money and negative impact on the health of both humans and animals, loss of biodiversity and to the environment. All these can be minimized by deploying varieties that are resistant to biotic stresses and GAB has already delivered many varieties resistant to various biotic stresses in rice (bacterial wilt, blast, etc.), chickpea (Fusarium wilt) and other crops.
The above examples, highlighted by Dr Varshney during the talk, demonstrate that there are significant advantages of investing in upstream genomics research in the long term. However, to ensure the full potential of these advanced tools and technologies, there is a need for enhanced investment in R&D at both international and national levels. In addition, governments need to look at tools and technologies with a positive lens and create an enabling environment for faster and large-scale adoption.
Senior Scientific Officer, ICRISAT