Genetic Improvement and Use of Biotechnology Applications in PGRFA

As the 21st century begins, scientists are close to being able to identify and manipulate individual complexes of genes in plant genetic resources that act together to produce specific plant traits. The wild germplasm and agro-nomically unadapted relatives contain great genetic wealth. Tools such as DNA markers and mapping, developed in molecular genetics, allow scientists to identify useful genes from such germplasm and transfer them efficiently to improved cultivars. DNA based technologies can be used to measure genetic variation quickly and accurately. They can identify novel types and extract genetic variation quickly and accurately that would otherwise remain hidden among the thousands of accessions in germplasm collections. Recent studies using this approach in wild relatives of rice, tomatoes, wheat and soybeans have led to the discovery of novel genes that can boost the output of these crops. Without the application of new DNA mapping technologies, these valuable genes would have remained undetected. Genetic linkage maps have made it possible to study the chromosomal locations for improving yield and other complex traits important to agriculture. Additional details on the use of these techniques can be found in Tanksley et al19 and Tanksley and McCouch.20

Molecular marker technology can only produce knowledge about important economic traits in combination with intelligently designed field experiments. Significant accomplishments in molecular biology are now enabling scientists to better understand the genetic control of complex and quantitative traits. DNA marker technology also provides an accurate estimation of genetic diversity and helps in the identification of duplicates in germplasm banks. It also enables the accurate identification of commercial varieties or other germplasm, subject to concerns about associated intellectual property rights. Evaluations with this technology provide knowledge on general genetic variation existing among and between groups of accessions using multivari-ate analysis. Then, a well documented group of accessions can be characterized as a core collection which represents a known degree of general genetic variation in given populations. This work is essential for genebanks that must keep many accessions at the same time in long term storage, including cryopreservation, while a genetically representative working collection should be continuously ready for use by clients.21

In a few years the cost of DNA marker technology is likely to reduce further, much as what happened with computer hardware. Much more critical will be handling data efficiently. In any central genotyping service, laboratory automation of sample handling will be desirable for high throughput. Today, the ability to identify and use genetic information is doubling every 12 to 24 months. This exponential growth in biological knowledge is transforming agriculture, nutrition and health care in the emerging life sciences industry.22 The field of genomics, which is the combination of an organism's genome and the informatics tools needed for data acquisition, storage and analysis, has two major components: the molecular genetics laboratory (data producers) and the computational laboratory (data handlers). The latter is know as bioinformatics.23

Major developments in molecular genetic research and breeding are moving in the direction of acquiring data ever more quickly and cheaply. Often overlooked is the fact that data are not information, and that extracting information from complex data sets and applying it to breeding goals are skills often outside the domain of either molecular biologists or crop breeders. A main point of this discussion is that future advances in crop breeding lie as much in information science, or bioinformatics, as in biotechnology. Yet, throughout the biotechnology industry, professional level expertise in the area of bioinformatics, or computational management of complex biological data, is rare and highly sought. At present, the most avid consumer of such expertise appears to be the pharmaceutical industry and the most highly desired skills are that of database mining and computational analysis of DNA sequences.

Demand for such expertise in plant sciences is now on the increase as genomic approaches to plant breeding and engineering of plant products are being applied toward selective breeding.

A variety of data bases, built and maintained at universities, largely in North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan, offer free electronic access to genome mapping data and genetic studies on the world's food and fiber crops. An Internet entry point to these is maintained.24 The increased focus on bioinformatics eventually will create:

1. An efficient database system uniting diverse sources of genetic information for breeding;

2. Computer software for visualization, analysis, and application of molecular data to breeding; and

3. Superior crop varieties, often incorporating genes from wild relatives, with a genetic complexity contributing to stable performance and embodying molecular selection expertise.

Many of the benefits of this work will be realized indirectly through the development and release of superior varieties.

Rao and Iwanaga8 provide an excellent review of the role of biotechnology in plant genetic resources conservation. These techniques have been effectively applied in germplasm collecting, characterization, evaluation and conservation. Despite all the advantages of having these modern biotech-nological tools, there is a great amount of debate on their use, especially in developing countries, in terms of access, property protection etc. There is a growing awareness that the profits generated from the exploitation of plant genetic resources, especially through biotechnology, are not shared equitably. These issues continue to be debated at the global level and are not discussed here, but it is important to remember that the bulk of the work in biotechnology, unlike the green revolution, is financed largely by the private sector. Hence, legal and property protection issues and sharing of profits come to the forefront. There is therefore an urgent need to develop procedures to link commercial benefits from the exploitation of plant genetic resources through biotechnology (and other methods of exploitation) to conservation of plant genetic resources.25,26

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