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Overcoming the ‘selection bottleneck’ that reduces resilience to climate change

Agri-TechE Article

Dr Paul Kersey is the Deputy Director of Science at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. His particular interest is genomics and bioinformatics, which play an increasing role in Kew’s scientific mission.

Paul is taking part in the Sofa Session at REAP 2021, so ahead of the conference we asked him what the theme of time means to him.

“I am looking at time from two perspectives, both looking forward to see how we can speed up breeding technologies, to create new crop varieties that can withstand climate change in the future, and also looking backwards through the samples in the herbarium to see changes in the genomes during previous periods of change.
“The development of new crops is a really problematic challenge. Existing crops have been optimised for their conditions and developed for the taste and properties that humans desire.
“As a result, there has been a ‘selection bottleneck’ which means there is relatively little genetic variety in our modern crop species. For each generation we select for optimal yields in optimal conditions, and in effect that means removing ‘unwanted’ genes, but the result is that the gene pool of these elite lines is now very small. “Contrast this to the pool of genetic diversity in the wild cousins of our crops. Many wild species have a large gene pool that allows them to adapt to increased temperature and extended drought periods – changes that are predicted to take place in prime growing areas over the coming years.
“Using traditional breeding methods to introduce desirable traits from wild species into modern crops can be a very lengthy process as each generation of offspring needs to mature for its characteristics to be seen.
“However, with modern genetic sequencing it is cheap and quick to sequence the plant offspring when they are very young and work out which ones have the right genes; significantly increasing the number of breeding cycles you can achieve in a year. While gene editing possibilities offer the potential to directly modify elite lines with exactly the desired changes, removing the need for extensive backcrossing,
“New Genomic Technologies are completely transforming the potential of the work we do at Kew. They create a practical basis for searching for genes and mutations that will confer desirable traits.
“And this is why I’m so interested in the digitisation of Kew’s collections, to catalogue, photograph and sequence the material we hold. For example, sequencing our seedbank (which holds large numbers of wild relatives of crop species) will identify genes and alleles they might have which could be directly useful for crop improvement.
“One example of this is the work that my colleague Aaron Davis, has been doing with coffee. He has identified non-domesticated species which produce very drinkable coffee, and are growable in the regions in Africa where existing species of domesticated coffee are starting to really struggle with the environmental change.
“Aaron really is finding the species that have the ecological potential to provide the coffee we may be drinking in the future.”
To hear Paul and experts from other disciplines talk about overcoming the challenges of time come to REAP 2021.

REAP 2021: Changing Time(s) for Agriculture10th November 2021

Imagine a world where agriculture is not constrained by time. The ability to manage and manipulate time is increasing and REAP 2021 will explore the advances in technology and breakthroughs in science that is making this possible.
REAP brings together people from across the agri-tech ecosystem who believe that innovation is the engine for change. The conference bridges the gap between producer needs and technology solutions and showcases exciting agri-tech start-ups.