The exponential population growth and climate change are driving the need for climate-resilient adaptable crops. Climate change is not only increasing the unpredictability of weather patterns and causing extreme stress on crop productivity but also accelerating long-term soil degradation and intensifying the emergence of resistant pests and diseases.
An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group Report on India highlights that an unexpected temperature rise will cause the yield of rice, wheat, pulses, and coarse cereal to plunge by 9-10% by 2050. Rice production is expected to shrink by 10% to 30%, while maize production is estimated to dip by 25% to 70% assuming temperature rises from 1º to 4°C. Apart from the abiotic constraints to our food security, the historical crop domestication is also multiplying the concerns about the ability of our food system to withstand the climate change challenges. For decades, such crop domestication has transformed crop wild relatives (CWRs) by fixing selective traits in process of developing a desirable domesticating crop and neglecting other climate-adaptive traits that the wild gene pool offers.
CWRs hold immense potential in reintroducing the lost genetic diversity and new adaptive alleles that can increase climatic stress resistance. Most efforts in exploiting CWR in breeding were focused on enhancing disease resistance and much less on enhancing adaptation to abiotic stress. Over the years, global research has identified hundreds of wild gene lines harboring allele introgression capabilities in major crops. One such successful example is synthetic hexaploid wheat (SHW), which is currently registered and used for breeding with commercialized varieties in various countries such as China, Iran, India, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Mexico. The SHW has been developed to widen the genetic variation in modern wheat. SHWs have deployed ancestral genomes using interspecific hybridization techniques. The SHW lines exhibit high abiotic stress tolerance, particularly superior drought tolerance conditions for root morphological traits, including deep root biomass and length of the longest root.
Recently, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), along with other institutions, identified about 15,000 germplasms of rice and wheat that can be leveraged in developing climate-smart varieties which are tolerant to stresses such as flood, heat waves, drought, etc. Department of Biotechnology (DBT) are actively implementing marker-assisted backcross breeding technologies to develop improved varieties in a short span of 3-5 years.
Recent genomic advancements and high-precision phenotyping have accelerated the identification of desirable genes from these CWRs responsible for controlling crucial agronomic traits. The discovery of these genes from wild varieties will enable the faster development of climate-smart crops with better biotic and abiotic stress tolerance. However, the on-field scalability and progress largely depend on the active involvement of both public and private sectors in developing and disseminating climate-smart varieties in the market.
Additionally, Big data application is further set to accelerate modern crop advancements and has immense potential in optimally utilizing genetic diversity repository to develop climate-resilient crops. There is a need to unfold the untapped potential of the wild genetic pool of various crops and crop families and encourage optimal use of modern technologies to bring in required genetic diversity in cultivable crops. A collaborative effort of the public and private organizations is needed to develop a structured process in identifying, developing, commercializing, and scaling up wild genetic gained climate-smart varieties in the market to combat the discussed climate adversities and secure global food security.
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