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Plant Breeding Evolution

Researchers have mapped the genome of many plants. Take corn for example. From that genome, they know how it naturally behaves in terms of ear size, resistance to gray leaf spot, and bugs. But there is always more to learn in terms of what would be beneficial to add in plant breeding, as well as things you don’t want.

Andy LaVigne is the president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association. He says as they continue to learn what parts of genetic code affect various characteristics, they can focus on resistance or making the plant hardier in drought conditions.

"Breeding is becoming much more precise, and it’s just technology. What we see coming are new techniques like gene editing and being able to go in and really target specific characteristics within the plant," says LaVigne. "And that’s what the exciting thing is going forward. CRISPR Cas is one of those new technologies or tools that’s out there today."

Many companies and universities are in stages of what he calls “proof of concept”. For example, making a beefsteak tomato taste more like an heirloom tomato, or a specific height of corn stalk.

"You’ve got to get into each variety and then determine what causes ear size, what causes stalk size, and what do we want? Do we want shorter plants, taller plants, do we want better tasting? So, that’s where all the breeders are going now, being able to compute all of the data that we have in the genetic pool," says LaVigne.

He says it takes a decade or more to bring a new plant variety from concept till it’s available to the farmer. With gene editing you can bring in desirable traits, but you don’t know what secondary characteristics might appear.  It takes time to work them out. 

Learn more about plant breeding evolution