The race to create super-crops

Posted: June 2, 2016

Old-fashioned breeding techniques are bearing more fruit than genetic engineering in developing hyper-efficient plants.
Farmers in the developing world would benefit from nutrient-efficient crops.

Farmers in the developing world would benefit from nutrient-efficient crops.

Jonathan Lynch likes to look beneath the surface. In his quest to breed better crops, the plant physiologist spends a lot of time digging up roots to work out what makes some varieties extremely good at extracting nutrients from the ground. Lynch wants to use this knowledge to develop plants with extra-efficient roots — crops that grow well in the nutrient-starved soils of the developing world. These plants could also reduce the use of fertilizers in richer nations.

Last year, Lynch's forays into the dirt paid off. He and his team at Pennsylvania State University in University Park reported1 that they had produced a variety of common bean, or string bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), with a combination of root traits that allows it to take up phosphorus from the soil with improved efficiency. In experimental plots, the plants produced three times the bean yield of typical varieties.

That result has raised hopes in Africa, where common beans are one of the most important sources of protein for poor people. Researchers in Mozambique are testing how Lynch's beans perform in the country's ecological zones, and they expect to win regulatory approval to bring the crop to market by next year.

Lynch's beans are among the first successful attempts in a global race to develop crops that grow well in soils depleted of nutrients. “Low availability of nitrogen, phosphorus and water are the main limitations of plant growth on Earth. We desperately need this technology,” says Lynch.

His work stands out because he has taken an old-school approach. He is leading a renaissance in some conventional crop-breeding techniques that rely on laboriously examining plants' physical characteristics and then selecting for desirable traits, such as growth or the length of fine roots.

And surprisingly, this approach seems to be outpacing the high-tech route.

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