Texas A&M University and Texas A&M AgriLife Research crop scientists will make a strong push in the coming years to increase food and feed production using marker-assisted breeding programs, according to Dr. David Baltensperger, head of the department of soil and crop sciences in College Station.

“We’ve had tremendous advances in our understanding of molecular genetics in the past few years,” Baltensperger said. “And with that understanding, we’ve been able to improve our traditional breeding with more than 30 breeders around the state of Texas working in various crops, from roses to grains.”

But in the continual battle to figure out how to feed and clothe the world as the population reaches upwards of 9 billion by 2050, there is still a lot of need for further growth, he said.

“Marker-assisted breeding provides the capacity to increase the number of unique genetic resources that we can screen, and also provides the capacity to screen for many traits simultaneously.”

Genetic advances can be made in all the economically important species: cotton, fruits and vegetables, grain crops, forages, timber, ornamental plants, turf, bio-products and specialty crops, which contribute more than $6 billion per year to the Texas economy, alone, he said.

“We have employed a lot of different techniques over the years, but the knowledge change has been just as rapid as it has been with the iPhone,” Baltensperger said. “Because it is continuously changing, we have not made the progress and adapted it to our breeding programs in Texas that we would like to have been able to make. With the rapid pace of change, we are in danger of falling behind.

“That was in part because we did not have the infrastructure; we haven’t had the people; we haven’t had the resources. We just haven’t put it all together, in part, because we haven’t had the time to develop it it’s happened that quickly.”

As an example, he said, less than 10 years ago wheat in Texas had only two traits that could be identified easily with genetic markers — greenbugs and rust. Today, with increasing numbers of markers mapped, that number has grown to 19 key traits specific to Texas germplasm and available to the AgriLife Research wheat breeding program.

“We’ve made that same kind of progress in crop after crop after crop,” Baltensperger said. “But we have yet to really deploy them into our breeding programs.”

Marker-assisted breeding will be used more and more to address abiotic and biotic stresses and crop quality characteristics, he said. Crop quality characters may vary from fiber strength in cotton to gluten binding capacity in wheat. Every crop has certain quality performance factors that impact its marketability and utilization.

“We now have the capability to modify these with marker-assisted selection,” Baltensperger said. “And we are moving toward developing the capacity to implement that into our various programs.”

He said the breeding programs will continue to look at improvement in field-based high-throughput phenotyping across all crops, along with a related sensor-based initiative, to see what works best in each crop.

The “best” is defined differently in each crop: for a citrus crop, it may be the one that doesn’t have citrus greening; the best if it’s a sugarcane crop may be the one that produces a higher percentage of sugar, Baltensperger said.

Each of these technologies will have to be utilized, he said, adding, “If you can’t test for something or detect it, you probably can’t develop a marker for it. There is a lot of interaction between that sensing capacity and this particular program in terms of phenotyping and moving forward.

“Now that we can run thousands of markers at a time, we can compare it to thousands of different traits at one time,” Baltensperger said. “These programs together will help researchers develop genetic and production technologies that will double the potential rate of genetic gain over the next 20 years.”