FFAR Grants Develop Heat Tolerance in Crops
WASHINGTON (April 26, 2022) – As the world warms, the yield of many staple crops – including those that already grow in hot climates – may be threatened by extreme heat and temperature variability. This emerging scenario puts both farmers’ livelihood and global nutritional security at risk. To increase sustainable production of nutritious food, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), with matching funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is awarding $5 million in grants through its Increasing Climate Resilience in Crops program to improve heat tolerance in crop plants. Grantees further secured additional funds for a total $11,469,755 investment.
“We have limited time to adapt crops to increasing temperatures and other environmental stresses,” said Dr. Jeffrey Rosichan, director of FFAR’s Crops of the Future Collaborative. “While current breeding and genetic enhancement techniques can be very effective, the immediacy of climate change requires us to develop more tools. These research projects are developing the agile science and technology that we urgently need to meet present and upcoming challenges.”
The grantees are studying a range of techniques to better understand and develop heat tolerance. These grants rapidly accelerate development of widely consumed crops to respond to climate change and create lower-cost technologies to share knowledge and tools with a wider range of countries and regions.
Common bean and cowpea are important legumes for food and nutritional security. These crops are susceptible to high temperatures, particularly during their reproductive stage and flower bud formation. Diepenbrock’s research is determining the effects of different high-temperature stresses on productivity, nutritional quality and physiological traits in genotypes of common bean and cowpea. The team is also mapping genetic regions affecting heat tolerance traits and screening for these traits in locations with different temperatures and humidity.
Developing heat and disease resistant crop varieties takes a long time, particularly because these traits are complex and controlled by multiple genes. In addition, reliable genetic markers identifying relevant traits are not readily available, making breeding more challenging. Leach’s research, with partners at CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture), is developing a strategy to generate reliable markers of stress-response DNA sequences to efficiently activate genes involved in heat tolerance and disease defenses in rice. The genetic markers could be applied in any crop breeding program, whether in low- or high-income countries.
While scientists now wield breakthrough technologies to edit crop genomes to enable climate resiliency, there is still a knowledge gap around which genes must be edited. Monroe’s research is leveraging the valuable but largely untapped reservoir of information stored in the genomes of crop landraces—traditional varieties adapted to diverse environments. In particular, the research focuses on cassava, one of the most important sources of food for low-income regions threatened by climate change. Combining newly developed genomic analysis and climate modelling approaches, Monroe is identifying gene variants predicted to be adaptive to future climates, with an emphasis on temperature extremes, and using genetic engineering techniques to generate cassava varieties to accelerate breeding.
Cowpea is an important crop nutritionally and economically for smallholder farmers in Africa and other regions. It is also one of the legumes most tolerant to high temperatures, making it key to understanding the genetics of adaptation to heat stress. Still, relatively high night temperatures significantly reduce grain yields. Munoz-Amatriain’s research is examining bioclimatic data—the relationship between climate and biological matter—and genetic information from cowpea varieties to search for gene variants associated with increased temperature tolerance.
Peanut is a high-protein food crop grown mostly in tropical and subtropical regions, and it is directly threatened by increasing global temperature. Pilon’s research is studying multiple peanut genotypes and varieties to identify genes, molecular mechanisms and photosynthetic processes related to heat stress and tolerance. The researchers are developing an automated model, the Peanut-ThermoTool, to indicate heat tolerance in peanut and rank genotypes for heat tolerance, predicting their capabilities to function during and recover after a period of heat stress. The genotypes possessing heat-tolerance traits will be available in the germplasm collection, serving as genetic resources for heat tolerance in breeding programs.
Rice, a major global food crop, is susceptible to heat stress losses in yield. Nighttime heat stress affects processes throughout the rice plant, including photosynthesis, respiration, nutrient transfer and reproduction. Tarpley’s research, with Drs. Michael Thomson and Endang Septiningsih, is enhancing two targeted rice genes that can provide increased tolerance when under heat stress. The first gene alters specific plant hormone responses, and the second gene enhances nutrient transfer. The project will also distribute low-cost methods for screening rice and other crops for heat stress responses based on physiological traits, aiding breeding programs in low-income countries.
Image: Peanut physiologist Dr. Cristiane Pilon in a peanut field measuring leaf gas exchange and fluorescence. Courtesy of Dr. Cristiane Pilon, University of Georgia.
Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research
The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.