As long as people have farmed the earth, they have adapted plants to fit their needs.
Today, plant breeders improve crops to resist disease and pests, adapt to the environment and produce greater amounts of food, fiber and fuel.
The LSU AgCenter funds breeding programs for most of Louisiana’s major crops, with researchers constantly seeking improvements to help the state’s growers by developing improved varieties.
“Our No. 1 priority is to support our growers,” said Adam Famoso, the AgCenter rice breeder. “We are focused on improving profitability for our growers and our industry. And that means improving plant varieties.”
Plant breeders work with a goal in mind or a problem to solve. There is an almost constant push to increase a crop’s yield, or how much a crop can produce. However, the plants must also remain resilient against bad weather, bugs, viruses and other threats.
A breeder will spend a decade just learning the issues of a particular crop in a region and developing genetic lines, said Stephen Harrison, the AgCenter wheat and oat breeder since 1984.
“It takes years to learn what the problems and challenges are, what you’re trying to accomplish besides just yield,” he said. “That part of plant breeding has not changed in 50 years.”
Breeders often say their trade is as much an art as a science. They are scientists well educated in many aspects of their focus areas with thousands of hours in labs and classrooms earning doctorates.
Yet they must think beyond the science to visualize what they want their plants to become. They must also remain accepting to possibilities they never considered, said Collins Kimbeng, the AgCenter sugarcane breeder.
“If you keep your mind open, if you see something that is going to result in a new development, you know it when you see it,” Kimbeng said. “The art part comes from being able to recognize new variations that are going to be beneficial.”
These researchers begin with plants that exhibit encouraging traits and cross them to create a new generation. Every year they make crosses that generate tens of thousands of new variations, Kimbeng said. Then they must winnow them down to the most important two or three.
“You do see a lot of things that you have seen before because most resemble the mom or the dad,” Kimbeng said. “Every once in a while you see a combination that is greater than both parents.”
When Harrison and AgCenter cotton breeder Gerald Myers began their careers, they did not have several tools breeders commonly use today.
In Harrison’s first year as a wheat and oat breeder in 1984, he hand-planted 1,000 short headrows, which are single rows grown from the 30 to 50 seeds on a single head of wheat. It took him a week. Last fall, using GPS-controlled auto-steer tractors and automated planters, he planted 52,000 rows in a day and a half.
Breeders, as well as all farmers, now have once unthinkable resources available in addition to the auto-steering tractors that use GPS, including combine harvesters that automatically measure weights and crop moisture and drones that fly above the field and record digital data to evaluate plants.
“We have made tremendous strides,” Harrison said.
Scientific advancements in plant breeding are even more astounding. Modern breeders have even more science to pair with their art. Recent advancements in DNA have revolutionized the field. Breeders can now make genomic predictions of grain yield and disease resistance of a breeding line before it is ever evaluated in the field.
“There is so much data,” Myers said.
Both Myers and Harrison grew up around plant breeding, as both their fathers were breeders working to develop new varieties in the mid-20th century. Tools now common to agricultural researchers were just being discovered.
“They were in graduate school when the structure of DNA was first determined in 1953,” Myers said. “And they worked with punch cards and hand calculators for the first 20 years of their careers.”
Today, advancements in DNA and the understanding of genetic markers now allow breeders to make genomic predictions. They can profile their breeding lines and predict which crosses are likely to be good and which are less likely to be useful, Famoso said.
“Before we even put a line in the field it’s a huge amount of work and investment to develop that line and generate seed to put it into a test,” he said. “Those are big time-consuming, resource-intensive things. Now we can take a piece of leaf from a single plant and predict with a pretty good accuracy. It’s not perfect. But it’s certainly good enough.”
This technology didn’t exist 20 years ago, said Famoso, who is restructuring the rice breeding program to incorporate these predictions as a routine process.
“There are always some buzz words that everybody is excited about,” Famoso said. “This is one that is not really just hype. It’s going to work.”
Genomic predictions will never take the place of testing lines in the field, Famoso said.
Harrison, who says he is an enthusiastic believer in the power and utility of these advancements, agrees.
“I still believe you will not be successful unless you have a very large field-based program,” Harrison. “You still have to grow them out. You still have to evaluate them. It’s still a numbers game like it’s always been. It’s just a lot smarter numbers game.”
Plant breeders have always been “jacks of all trades,” Famoso said. They had to know some about all aspects of the crops they grew. Now statistics, genetics and computer science and software development are increasingly important in developing new varieties.
“The reality is it’s not possible to be a true expert in all the different disciplines,” Famoso said.
Instead, breeders must learn enough to discuss their needs with others and become collaborators with experts in agricultural and outside fields.
“In that sense it really shifts from being a jack of all trades to being an innovator with a bigger picture strategy,” Famoso said. “It’s a bit of a shift. I think if you’re going to be successful the collaboration piece is crucial.”
The future of plant breeding excites these dedicated researchers, even those with four decades in the field.
“We have tremendous resources now,” Harrison said. “I wish I were 36 and not 66.”
Kyle Peveto is an assistant specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications and associate editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the spring 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
Adam Famoso, in a greenhouse at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station, consults with Susan McCouch, a geneticist specializing in rice at Cornell University in New York, as part of the AgCenter rice breeding program. Photo by Bruce Schultz
Sugarcane breeder Collins Kimbeng stands amidst potential new sugarcane varieties, which are now seedlings at the AgCenter Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel. Photo by Kyle Peveto
Wheat and oat breeder Stephen Harrison stands in triticale at an AgCenter field day. Photo by Bruce Schultz
Cotton breeder Gerald Myers counts cotton seed to send out for planting at a cotton laboratory in Baton Rouge. Photo by Kyle Peveto