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Egenis · Research

New Technologies for Agriculture: Interrogating Apomixis (2007-2008)

Matt Hodges

Start date

2007-10-01

Affiliated staff

Steve Hughes

Contact

Homepages: and Email: m.hodges@exeter.ac.uk

Background

Apomixis is a mode of plant reproduction akin to ‘self-cloning’, whereby plants produce seed asexually which replicates the maternal genome. It is relatively common in nature, with examples among the Poaceae (e.g. pearl millet) and Compositae (e.g. dandelion).

Very few agricultural crops have an apomictic breeding system. The potential of Apomixis lies in the genetic ‘fixing’ of successful hybrids, which will greatly curtail breeding and development costs. The technology could also support crop breeding in the developing world, enabling resource-poor farmers and other stakeholders to unlock biological diversity, and ‘fix’ hybrids to fit niche microclimates.

Scientists are working to identify the genomic components which enable Apomixis. One aim is to introduce these into non-apomictic crops. Major scientific institutions are engaged in such work, often with funding from the seed industry. It is a challenge to reproductive and synthetic biology.

Aims

Key questions:

  • How close are scientists to understanding and manipulating Apomixis?
  • What is the prognosis for the introduction of Apomixis into food crops by genomic means?
  • What are the dynamics of relations between funding, knowledge production, and technology development?

Findings

  • Since the 1990s, research into Apomixis has been increasingly funded by corporations. This has shifted activity into laboratories, away from the synthesis of plant breeding and scientific analysis that existed in the 1990s, and has limited the opportunity for information sharing.
  • Experts are divided as to whether genomics research can produce the technology or it can only arise from collaboration between scientists, plant breeders, and development experts.
  • Egenis is consulting with researchers to interrogate the forms an Apomixis tool might take. This is the subject of a COST Action with the University of Perugia and other international partners, to convene workshops involving scientists, plant breeders, and development experts.
  • We are assessing the impact of breeding programmes using the Brachiaria species—an apomictic forage crop used extensively in South America and South Asia and the outstanding example of wide hybrid progenies stabilized by Apomixis—to draw practical lessons for technology development.
  • There is no doubt that an Apomixis technology is attractive to investors and politicians. The timeline for its emergence, and its true relevance to resource-poor farmers, are contested.

Project update

The COST action ‘Harnessing plant reproduction for crop improvement’ has been awarded for the period 2009-14 to a network from 17 EU countries. The network aims to better harness existing knowledge and research which will allow for a synergy of inter-related European and international expertise to achieve a better understanding of the mechanisms of sexual/apomictic plant reproduction. Egenis's involvement is to undertake a study of the innovative activities of the network to increase the knowledge of processes of biotechnological innovation.