The role of genetics in adaptation of agriculture to climate change

Published on July 1, 2014   49 min

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Other Talks in the Series: Agricultural Genetics

Hello, my name is Roberto Tuberosa, and I teach plant biotechnology applied to plant breeding at the University of Bologna in Italy. My research interests focus mainly on maize and durum wheat, also known as pasta wheat, durum wheat. My lecture will touch upon a number of important issues to better understand and appreciate the roles that modern genetics will play to select more climate-resilient crop cultivars, better able to adapt to a fast changing environment. It has been estimated that approximately 70% of the increase in food production that will be required to meet an adequate level of food security by year 2050, will derive from genetics approaches. Particularly genomics applied to combination of breeding.
The contents of this lecture partially overlap and expand those of other lectures. Particularly the one provided by Professor Henry, Professor Tester, Professor Paterson, and Professor King. But also provide useful information and material for a number of issues important to mitigate the consequences of climate change on agriculture by a genetics approach. In view of the vastity and complexity of the issue started by my lecture, I will only focus on the limited number of aspects and examples. I will start by setting the stage for a number of important issues and aspects, including also some dos and don'ts as related to both conventional breeding, and to molecular breeding, also known as genomics assisted breeding. Due to the fact that most traits that regulate the adaptive response of the plant are quantitative, the QTL approach will be dealt with quite extensively in this lecture, with some examples from my own lab, and also from the literature. Finally, I will provide some comments on the future challenges and opportunities to best mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
Climate change is actually nothing new under the sun. It has always been with us, ever since agricultural practices were first adopted in the Neolithic. In the past, entire civilizations have suffered the negative consequences of unexpected changes of climate. Particularly the pattern of rainfall, and in some cases, the consequences have been totally devastating. A recent example from the last century, was the Dust Bowl, caused by a prolonged drought and mismanagement of farmers, practices, in the Midwest. Notably, it has been suggested that the success of the introduction of hybrid corn in the US, may have somehow been favored by the drought conditions that prevailed during the years of the Dust Bowl. What has really changed in the past century is the rate to which such changes are occurring, together with the frequency and severity of weather anomalies, and importantly, the damage to both yield and yield quality.
While in the past, farming has privately adopted the strategy to adapt the growing environment to the needs of the crops, as, for example, with irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides, et cetera. Increasingly more attention is being devoted to the selection of genotypes better suited to cope with environmental fluctuations, extremes, and more thrifty, in terms of requirements of natural resources. As more resources that use efficient cultivars are increasingly being adopted to enhance this so-called sustainable intensification of agriculture, namely producing more with less, and reducing the environmental impact of agriculture on the environment. We should, therefore, always be aware of possible trade-offs between maximizing yield, versus minimizing risks due to climate fluctuations. Examples of this are resistance genes that protect the plant from the pathogen, but with a metabolic cost. That can curtail maximum productivity in absence of the pathogen attack. A similar consideration applies also to the size and biomass of roots in relation to water availability. Clearly, the implications on the acceptable level of risk aversion of farmer's communities differ in industrialized countries, versus developing ones. In this context, modeling provides an effective framework to design and test in silico, including effects of QTLs and genes, new crops ideotypes optimized for target environments, and future climatic scenarios.

The role of genetics in adaptation of agriculture to climate change

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