NC_OLD007: Conservation, Management, Enhancement and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources
Statement of Issues and JustificationThe conservation, management and utilization of plant genetic resources, also known as germplasm, form the basis for harnessing genetic diversity to create and sustain agricultural production systems and a stable, nutritious national food supply. Germplasm, both the genetic material (genes, groups of genes, chromosomes) that controls heredity and the tissues, organs and organisms that express the variation contained in that genetic material, provides the essential building blocks to ensure future improvements in food, fiber and biofuel production and quality. Diverse germplasm is crucial to our ability to continually refine cultivars, inputs, production systems, markets and end-use processes to respond to production challenges and to changing societal needs, including support of a rapidly emerging bioenergy industry. Genetic resources, in combination with water, air, soil, minerals and crop management practices, together define the agricultural production system that sustains humanity and the stability of our society. These resources also comprise the essence of our environment and, consequently, our quality of life by providing crucial ecological services and valued aesthetic qualities.
As the major grain production area in the world, the vitality of the agricultural system of the North Central Region (NCR) is crucial to global food security. Historically, many of the region's crops were not indigenous to the U.S. Diverse plant genetic resources and associated information for use in crop development are vital to ensure the continued productivity of this region, given ever changing environmental and societal needs. Production of corn and non-native grain species has helped the NCR become the world's major grain production area. Therefore, the health of the agricultural system of the NCR is crucial to global food security, and increasingly also to security of energy production in the U.S. Expanded use of corn and lignocellulosic materials for ethanol production and soybean for biodiesel is now considered fundamental to U.S. security.
Interest is increasing in diversifying the array of crops that can fit into existing production systems to enhance the economic viability of producers and provide new market alternatives. Areas within the NCR utilize plant diversity to different degrees in their agricultural production, some extensively; yet abiotic, biotic and market pressures are dynamic and will continue to threaten the profitability and, therefore, the sustainability of existing crop production. Development of crops that can be integrated into sustainable agricultural production systems supports the achievement of national rural development and environmental quality objectives. Crop plants must also be evaluated for invasive potential, and appropriate risk assessments made concerning their introduction into new geographic areas.
Prior to the use of petroleum for energy production, society depended much more intimately on plant products for fuel and industrial feedstocks. The supply of petroleum, also plant-based, is finite and its cost increasingly volatile. Society is looking once again to agricultural-production solutions for its energy and industrial raw-material needs. Expanded use of corn for ethanol production, soybean, canola, camelina, and sunflower for biodiesel, and the promise of lignocellulosic feedstocks for energy production (now considered to be highly feasible) are considered fundamental to U.S. energy security. The nation's maize collection, which comprises approximately one-third of the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station's (NCRPIS) holdings, is a key resource for future energy security as well as for food and feed.
Research and development related to the potential utilization of alternative plant species for energy production and for food, fuel, fiber, medicinal/nutriceutical, and biobased products are all increasing in priority. However, developing our understanding of selectable traits that can contribute to the above objectives is challenging.
Because water is a limiting factor for production in many areas of the globe as well as in the U.S., development of drought-tolerant varieties is an important objective. Production of crops for many purposes on marginally productive lands under current cropping systems is also increasing, including for biomass for energy; this is hoped to have a positive impact on rural development. Understanding how to manage and produce new crops is a complex task, and important in order to minimize economic and environmental risks and maximize benefits to producers, end-users and consumers. The Department of Energy is actively partnering with NCR and other researchers in plant genetics, biochemistry, germplasm conservation, agronomy and engineering to understand the energy potential of new and established crops.
By using the products of plant genome sequencing efforts, researchers can link phenotypic and genomic information and understand gene function in ways never before possible, enabling innovative uses of plant genetic resources and new impacts and benefits to society. It is said that biological discovery in the 21st century will be what biochemistry was to industrial development in the 20th century. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have supported the development of medicinal-plant collections at the NCRPIS as part of a larger, multidisciplinary botanical research center that links phytochemical profiles, genotyping, and bioactivity assays to improve our understanding of botanical dietary supplements.
Diverse germplasm collections are developed and maintained at the NCRPIS, an element of the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS). The NCRPIS has been partially funded by Regional (now Multi-State) Project NC-7 since 1947. The function of a germplasm collection is analogous to that of a library; researchers 'borrow' its resources to develop solutions for dietary and nutritional needs, biotic and abiotic production issues, phytoremediation and rehabilitation of disturbed environments, and to provide genetic diversity used for a wide array of basic plant research objectives. Researchers return repeatedly to the 'library' as a source of allelic diversity. Shared research results increase the overall value of the library holdings for subsequent investigators who build upon previous discovery and invention. The NCRPIS was the first Regional Plant Introduction Station in the U.S., and has served as a major component of the network of 26 NPGS sites for the last 58 years. The NCRPIS provides plant genetic resources, associated information, and a wide variety of technical and leadership services devoted to substantially improving agricultural technology in the U.S. and abroad. In 2003, it was designated by the USDA-ARS as a mission-critical site.
Since 1954, the NCRPIS has coordinated a cooperative network involving the NCR's State Agricultural Experiment Stations, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and public gardens and arboreta to conduct long-term evaluations of promising new trees and shrubs. This network collects and summarizes performance data that shed light on plant-environment interactions and provide practical advice to landscape professionals. The NCR is an especially challenging region for the cultivation of trees and shrubs, with its climatic extremes, grassland soils, and increasing urbanization. New biotic stresses caused by the rise of new pests and diseases, such as Emerald Ash Borer, Asian Longhorned Beetle, and more virulent strains of Dutch Elm Disease, present special challenges that can only be addressed by ensuring the ongoing availability of a diverse array of well-adapted landscape plants. The challenges posed to U.S. agricultural productivity, the nature of the demand to meet these challenges, and issues involved have been well-summarized (34); pests and plant diseases are estimated to cause losses of $20-33 billion annually, and recent trends increase risks due to new or changing pests and their geographic distributions. The role of safeguarding the world's crop diversity collections should belong to governments, international organizations, and the private sector acting in partnership for the public good.
Because of the diversity of environments and needs in the NCR, and the diversity of research interests and expertise available, it is only logical and fitting that a multi-disciplinary effort utilizing the talents of all interested researchers be rigorously applied to develop and test potential solutions to these many challenges.
The impacts of successful germplasm conservation, management, enhancement and utilization can be measured in the introduction of economically viable new crops and cultivars and new uses for existing crops based on a thorough understanding of their traits and properties, including nutritional, chemical, pharmaceutical, industrial and aesthetic applications. Impact is also made via contributions to our fundamental understanding of the nature and biology of genetic diversity, how it interacts with and is influenced by environment, and the resulting discoveries, inventions and applications which benefit society.
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