FFAR Research Revolutionizes Hybrid Seed Production

Washington, DC

  • Next Generation Crops
WASHINGTON (September 22, 2021) — Hybrid seeds are produced when crops are cross-pollinated to improve the characteristics of the offspring plants. The large-scale use of hybrid seeds over the past century has contributed to a revolution in agriculture production, both fortifying crops and increasing yields. However, hybrid seeds need to be generated afresh every season. The seed production process is labor-intensive and results in higher costs for farmers. To circumvent this production bottleneck, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a $600,000 Seeding Solutions grant to University of California, Davis (UC Davis) to develop hybrid plants which produce seeds that are genetic clones of the parent plant, substantially reducing their climatic impact and farmers’ bottom lines.
Hybrid crop plants produce higher yields than their non-hybrid cousins, but they are expensive to create. To make hybrid maize seeds, for example, farmers must plant alternating rows of male and female plants, with each containing a different desirous trait, and then harvest the resulting hybrid seeds. This process requires 33 percent extra land as well as the use of specialized tractors, which compact the soil and burn fossil fuels. Rice and wheat hybridization, too, rely on cumbersome systems which are highly sensitive to adverse environmental conditions while many crops, including most legumes and sorghum, are not available to farmers as hybrids due to the difficulty of cross-pollinating them.
Further increasing costs, high-yielding hybrid strains cannot currently be maintained from season to season. Existing hybrid plants generate a second generation of seeds, but the seeds are not as productive as the first generation because optimal gene combinations are not retained. Thus, the hybridization process must be repeated every season.
UC Davis researchers are optimizing newly discovered synthetic apomixis technology to reduce the cost of developing and maintaining hybrid strains. Apomixis is a process in many plants that reproduce asexually, avoiding the genetic variability in the next generation that arises from sexual reproduction. Synthetic apomixis is the application to crop plants that allows hybrids to produce seeds that are clones of the parent plant, with the same high yields. Using genome editing, the research team is introducing apomixis to rice plants and aims to boost the frequency of clone seeds in affected plants from 30 percent to 90 percent. The team also plans to introduce the improved synthetic apomixis technology in maize, which shares many key features with rice and has a large demand for hybrid seeds. Rice and maize provide the majority of calories in the developing world. Incorporating synthetic apomixis into cereal crops, therefore, would go a long way toward sustaining global food security.
Synthetic apomixis is a promising new technology that has the potential to revolutionize the production of hybrid seeds. This project will bridge the critical gap between novel research and commercialization, delivering real benefits to producers. Sally Rockey, Ph.D.
Executive Director Emeritus

“This FFAR award provides us a great opportunity to take an exciting new technology to the stage where it can be put to use, to directly benefit seed producers and farmers,” said UC Davis lead researcher Dr. Venkatesan Sundaresan.

Syngenta provided $600,000 in matching funds and material support for a $1,200,000 total investment in improving the revolutionary apomixis technology.


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.

Connect: @FoundationFAR | @RockTalking

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