Breeding Better Seeds

The Lempert Report
May 05, 2014

When we think of the technology behind growing plants what tends to come to mind is genetic engineering

A newer, less controversial, system is gaining traction. Marker-assisted or molecular breeding. What is it? With Marker-assisted selection plant breeders are able to locate seedlings with the most promising and most desirable traits. Grow them, and get rid of the rest. It's essentially a selection system that cuts short the long process of physically identifying desirable traits, like the color and firmness of a plant. To quote a recent article in the Washington Post; "This method works with genetic material native to a prospective plant and allows a much larger population to be screened than with conventional breeding."

Because the plant’s natural genetic boundaries are not crossed there is a lot less controversy here than with GMOs.  It's more attractive because the desirable traits already existing in the plant are selected, as opposed to desirable traits having to be engineered. 

Opposition is concerned with the effect on small scale farmers and local growers, but according to the Washington Post, the technology has become easier and less expensive and consumers are starting to see the results.  Another concern for some is a potential lack of diversity, meaning, if we get so focused on just the good traits, we are excluding that natural development of diverse plants.  But

Ralph Scorza, a peach breeder at the Agriculture Department’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station told the Washington Post that “well-trained breeders will understand the balance between going headlong for a particular trait and also maintaining a population with diversity.”

Scientists believe that such technology also promises to avert certain crop disasters. For example, the flood tolerant rice gene developed in India. And for the benefit of the consumer, advanced breeding techniques is also allowing for produce with good flavor.  

So is this farming of the future? We'll have to wait and see, but what is clear is that the more scientists know about how nature develops new plants, the more knowledge can be applied to building better plants.