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Unified approach urged for plant, animal breeding

Exploiting scientific critical mass and high volume of data available would help address questions common to both plant and animal breeding.

Unifying the approaches to plant and animal breeding through the use of genomic selection is crucial to achieving global food security, according to a global team of leading scientists.

In a paper published this week in the international journal Nature Genetics, scientists from the U.K.'s National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) assert that global collaboration and investment across the two disciplines is central to increasing agricultural productivity and resilience.

Exploiting scientific critical mass and the high volume of genomic data about plant and animal species now available would help address questions that are common to both disciplines. This would lead to "game-changing" advances in breeding while simultaneously creating a platform for new scientific discoveries and "products" — such as plants that can grow with less water or lower nutrient levels — that may be of particular benefit to the developing world.

SRUC professor, principal and chief executive Wayne Powell co-authored the paper with professor Ian Mackay, head of quantitative genetics at NIAB; Tinashe Chiurugwi, former NIAB research scientist, and professor John Hickey, chair of animal breeding at The Roslin Institute.

“Genomic selection has made it possible, for the first time since the dawn of agriculture, to carry out genetic selection without relying on the assessment of visible characteristics, known as phenotyping," Powell said. “Genomics provide a common technology base, allowing the bringing together of plant and animal breeding that would create a step change in the rate of genetic gain for crops, livestock and aquaculture while also providing a very strong platform for new discoveries. Not only will we be able to produce new varieties and breeds; we will also have a better understanding of the biological processes that underpin their performance.

“We already have examples of where genomic selection is making major changes in the private sector, such as its use in the dairy industry, where the interval between generations of cattle has been shortened from five to two years. However, there is a huge opportunity for it to be used to deliver public good by bringing benefits to the developing world,” Powell added.

The unification of animal and plant breeding will require a coordinated global effort by scientists and research funders, the advancement of scientific skills and the development of new partnerships spanning the public and private sectors, the authors said.

Hickey explained, “While plant and animal breeding have the same roots and the same goals, they have diverged somewhat over the decades due to biologically induced requirements for different technical approaches. Genomic selection is the technology through which they can again coalesce. This will require new ways of structuring breeding programs and the research programs that support them.”

The Nature Genetics paper was the result of the "Implementing Genomic Selection in CGIAR Breeding Programs" workshop that brought together public and private plant and animal breeders with genomics technology vendors. The workshop was funded by the food security research consortium CGIAR and the U.K. Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council.

NIAB is a major international center in plant research, crop evaluation and agronomy, with nearly 100 years of experience and an international reputation for independence, innovation and integrity. With headquarters in Cambridge, U.K., and regional offices across Britain, NIAB spans the crop development pipeline and has the specialized knowledge, skills and facilities required to support the improvement of agricultural and horticultural crop varieties, to evaluate their performance and quality and to ensure that these advances are transferred into on-farm practice through efficient agronomy.

SRUC supports innovation and sustainable development in agriculture and the rural sector in Britain and internationally.

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