Research connects crops to native, original locations
By STEVE BROWN
PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. -- Through much of history local farmers saved and shared seeds, creating a genetic path that can to traced to the place where the plant originated, Washington State University Extension's Laura Lewis said.
In a presentation to the annual convention of Tilth Producers of Washington, Lewis said agricultural geographers can trace the origins of crops to areas on all continents.
That is where the gene pool is deepest.
During her work as a Peace Corps volunteer in sub-Saharan Africa, Lewis found that native farmers planted seed that had wild genes.
"They weren't getting high yields, but stable yields," she said.
When breeders want to add valuable traits that have been lost in a certain crop, they find the highest diversity of varieties tends to be in the gene pool at the center of the crop's geographic origin.
When breeders or farmers choose germplasm to improve their crops, they often consider the source of seeds and cuttings.
The National Plant Germplasm System, which has a half-million distinct varieties from throughout the world, is maintained by the USDA Agricultural Research Service as part of the Germplasm Resources Information Network. A website -- www.ars-grin.gov -- provides searchable information not only on plants, but also on animals, invertebrates and microbes.
Rebecca McGee, legume research geneticist with the ARS, said breeders often use more-resilient native varieties to add desirable traits. To her peas and lentils she has added disease resistance from India and Ethiopia, high protein from Estonia, seed weevil resistance from a wild relative in Israel, plant height from Iran, cold tolerance from Turkey and day-length sensitivity from Australia.
McGee said she uses traditional breeding techniques, transferring pollen from one variety to another that is closely related. And though commercial breeders look for yield, she said public breeders can look for resiliency.