Millions of the world’s poorest people depend on cassava, banana and plantain for their staple diet. These are hardy crops, but they are also basically trees and they propagate as vegetative clones. That means that creating new varieties is a difficult and slow process — leaving them vulnerable to pests and diseases, such as the Panama fungus threatening bananas.
Now UC Davis plant biologist Simon Chan and colleagues from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture are teaming up to bring some of Chan’s advanced plant breeding techniques to benefit farmers making a living with these crops. The project is being funded by the BREAD program, a joint initiative by the National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Most crops like maize and rice are sold as hybrid seed, because hybrids are often stronger than either of their parents. But to reliably make hybrid seed, you need to have parent plants that consistently ‘breed true’ so the hybrid offspring will always have the same characteristics.
That’s well established in row crops like wheat and maize. But not in ‘tree crops,’ and certainly not in plants like cassava and banana, where there has been very little investment in plant breeding by seed companies.
Last year, Chan’s lab at UC Davis, working with the lab plant Arabidopsis, published a method to make ‘haploid’ plants — plants that carry the DNA of only one of their parents. They followed up with a method for making clones of plants as seeds (instead of cloning plants as cuttings, which has been done for thousands of years). Seeds are easier to store, ship and handle than vegetative cuttings.
With the new Gates/NSF grant, Chan and his colleagues will apply this advanced technology to cassava and banana, with the ultimate aim of making true-breeding lines of plants that can create hybrid seed for farmers.
Photo: Simon Chan explaining his work to Bill Gates, chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “He had a lot of good questions,” Chan said. (Photo copyright Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, all rights reserved.)
Chan also recently won another major award — he was one of two UC Davis scientists picked as “HHMI-GBMF Investigators” by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation in an innovative program to boost the plant sciences.