Genetic breakthrough promises cheap crop costs for world’s poorest farmers

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A long sought-after genetic engineering breakthrough will allow farmers in the developing world to produce high-yield and disease-resistant rice more cheaply, scientists have said.

Researchers have managed to create clones of high-performing hybrid varieties that end the need for farmers to buy expensive new seeds every year.

The resulting rice plants maintain their bumper yields for at least three generations, in an advance that came after decades of attempts.

First-generation hybrids of crop plants often show better yields and performance than their parent strains – a phenomenon called hybrid vigour.

But the effects are then lost when the hybrids are bred together for a second generation, so farmers wanting to keep getting the best harvest must buy new seed each season. The extra cost means that the benefits of rice hybrids have yet to reach many of the world’s farmers.

An international team of researchers from institutions including the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and University of California have now found a way to reproduce the hybrid vigour generation after generation.

Hybrid seeds ‘accessible to everyone’

Scientists have been trying to get the high-yield hybrids to propagate as clones which remain identical without further breeding.

Many wild plants can produce seeds that are clones of themselves, in a process called apomixis.

“Once you have the hybrid, if you can induce apomixis, then you can plant it every year,” said Gurdev Khush, of the department of plant sciences at the University of California.

The researchers managed to create clones by tweaking genes that control the cell division cycle, so that cells divide into two exact copies. The cloning process was 95 per cent efficient.

“Apomixis in crop plants has been the target of worldwide research for over 30 years, because it can make hybrid seed production become accessible to everyone,” said Professor Venkatesan Sundaresan at the University of California.

“The resulting increase in yields can help meet global needs of an increasing population without having to increase use of land, water and fertilisers to unsustainable levels.”

Rice is the staple crop for half the world’s population. The results could now be extended to other agricultural staples such as wheat or maize, the researchers said.

The pressures of climate change and the challenges of feeding booming populations mean scientists predict a growing demand for genetically modified crops in the developing world.

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