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Can genomics boost productivity of orphan crops?

Published: Friday, December 07, 2012
Last Updated: Friday, December 07, 2012
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Rajeev K Varshney and colleagues published a letter in the recent issue of Nature Biotechnology aruging that genomics can be effective in enhancing the yield of tropical food crops

 Nature Biotechnology 30, 1172–1176 (2012) doi:10.1038/nbt.2440 ; 07 December 2012

Advances in genomics over the past 20 years have enhanced the precision and efficiency of breeding programs1 in many temperate cereal crops2, 3. One of the first applications of genomics-assisted breeding has been the introgression of loci for resistance to biotic stresses or major quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for tolerance to abiotic stresses into elite genotypes through marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC)4. For instance, introgression of a major QTL for submergence tolerance (Sub1) into widely grown rice varieties has substantially improved yield in >15 million hectares of rain-fed low-land rice in South and Southeast Asia5. Despite this success story, the overall adoption of genomics-assisted breeding in developing countries is still limited especially for complex traits like yield under environmental stress in several other crops6, 7.

Although maize, rice and wheat dominate global food production, several other crops are of great importance for some communities in developing countries (Supplementary Table 1). This group includes sorghum and millets, groundnut, cowpea, common bean, chickpea, pigeonpea, cassava, yam and sweet potato (Table 1). As they are not extensively traded and receive little attention from researchers compared to the main crops, these important crops for marginal environments of Africa, Asia and South America are often referred to as 'orphan crops'. Breeding for orphan crops is lagging behind major crops although they are key staple crops in many low-income countries where small-holder farmers cannot afford to buy improved seed. The magnitude of the breeding effort for those orphan crops and the capacity of adopting modern technologies is extremely variable across developing countries and generally directly related to the health of the national economy.

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