Plant Domestication and Novel Crops

Farmers and agriculture underpin the well-being of the world’s population. Agriculture is changing continuously: every year for the last 10,000 years, farmers have improved their weed control and water management, and each decade, farmers have won and lost battles with pests and diseases, and adopted new varieties of their crops. Over a longer timescale of 50 to 100 years, they introduce new species to cultivation and the food supply, even if the exchanges of old-world and new-world crops in the 16th and 17th centuries – including maize and potato from tropical America with wheat from the middle-east and sugar cane from southeast Asia – are unlikely to be repeated. ‘Novelty’ in crops can come from finding and exploiting new diversity in existing major crops or from improving and introducing species not previously used on a significant scale. The exploitation of new diversity is important to the livelihood of subsistence farmers and commercial growers. Modern genetics, mutation and molecular methods, and plant breeding can benefit producers, consumers and the environment.

Click here to link to Contents Snapshots for Domestication Special Issue

A special issue of the Annals of Botany appeared in October 2007 on Plant Domestication. All papers are freely accessible.

Annals of Botany Domesitcation Issue November 2007

Only 0.1% of the world's plant species are grown as crops, and even within these crop species, only a small proportion of the total genetic variability is used in commercial varieties. Here, I address six inter-related questions about why it might be desirable to exploit novel germplasm in breeding programmes: to exploit plant diversity, to meet continuing breeding objectives in major crops, to develop new crops, to meet new needs from existing crops, to ensure all the world's people benefit from breeding programmes, and to ensure the sustainability of crop production. Both species which are rarely cultivated, and genes from accessions and species related to existing crops, can be exploited to meet the need for improvement of agricultural production. Molecular and statistical methods have the potential to speed introduction of novel germplasm: allowing quantitative assessment of diversity, characterization of desirable genes, tracking of chromosomes, genes or gene combinations through breeding programmes, selection of rare recombination events and direct gene transfer through transformation. But the challenges of maintaining desirable characters in varieties incorporating novel germplasm, overcoming genetic stability problems, and ensuring safety are considerable.