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Forage grasses may soon experience heterosisForage grasses may soon experience heterosis

Gene discovered that hinders self-fertilization in grasses, which could lead to hybridization of forage grasses.

June 29, 2016

2 Min Read
Forage grasses may soon experience heterosis

The grass might be greener on the other side, but in economic terms, grass growth is a factor that must be considered and should be optimized, where possible.

Many grasslands are made up of so-called artificial pasture, which, unlike permanent pasture, is integrated into arable crop rotation and is regularly seeded with forage grass. The seeds of the most important varieties of grass are subject to constant development through cultivation.

However, whereas success in cultivating varieties of grains such as wheat, maize or rice has led to spectacular increases in yield and entered into the public consciousness as the "Green Revolution," little attention has been paid to the progress made in cultivating forage grasses, even though forage grass should respond to the same factors that increase the yield of grain crops.

The main role is played by "hybrid cultivation," although researchers are still only beginning to understand why hybrid plants grow better and stronger than non-hybrids — a phenomenon known as the "heterosis effect."

Non-inbreeding grasses

A team led by Bruno Studer, a professor at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, recently took a big step towards cultivating hybrid forage grasses. They found a gene that ensures that the pollen of so-called self-incompatible grasses does not form any pollen tubes when it lands on the stigma of a female flower of the same plant. This gene, called the S-locus gene, is an important component of a biological mechanism that hinders self-fertilization, thereby preventing inbreeding.

For his work on self-incompatibility, Studer was awarded the Wricke Prize at this year's conference of the German Society for Plant Breeding. The discovery of the S-locus in English ryegrass (Lolium perenne) marks a milestone in the cultivation of forage grasses.

"Only with this knowledge can we take cultivation concepts that were imagined decades ago and implement them in the real world," Studer said.

He believes one possibility is to use genetic markers to inform growers which plants can be crossed with each other. "If we can steer pollination within breeding populations, then we can use the heterosis effect to increase the yield of forage grasses significantly — but by natural means, and without losing any genetic diversity," Studer said.

Beat Reidy, a fodder crop expert at the School of Agricultural, Forest & Food Sciences in Zollikofen, Switzerland, also sees great potential in this new finding. However, he believes it will take decades to show whether the hoped-for progress has been realized.

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