Thanks to the South-African Plant Breeders association, I had the privilege to attend the NAPB 2020 Annual meeting which was held virtually between the 17th to the 20th August. The meeting was kicked off by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln organising committee, treating the audience to some interesting facts on Nebraska and the University. The first session was a panel discussion between different industry and academic role players with breeding, statistical and ethical professional backgrounds. The panellists each gave a brief overview of their career paths and Jean Cormack stated, “you never know what is going to happen”, indicating that you might end up in a career that you never planned for. The panellists gave their opinion on what educational shortages there is in the field of breeding. The concept of basic agronomy is still very important and needs to be more focused on. How to use and interpret data to do predictive modelling and machine learning is just as important. Both students and career scientists need to be reminded that ethics limits risk exposure and it is very important for the reputation of the company.
Education in project management would also add a benefit to early career breeders. The second session was a scientific discussion about gene editing, the regulations thereof as well as the practical side. The talk by Fan-Li Chou focused on the regulation of Gene edited (GE) plants within the US. No new current laws have been written for the regulation of GE plants, but the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) has the following policy: “Plant varieties developed through the latest breeding methods should not be differently regulated if they are similar to or indistinguishable from varieties that could have been produced through earlier breeding methods.” The second talk focused on the importance of GE in developing countries, such as Africa. A study conducted by Dr. Getu Daguma looked at the gene editing capabilities of tef grass and making it tolerant to lodging. Gene editing could be applied to a wide range of crop hosts, increasing the yield, nutritional quality etc. Examples stated for gene editing crop targets included, causing striga resistance in sorghum, bacterial blight resistance in rice and reducing the toxic cyanogen production in cassava. Thus, there are significant opportunities to improve traits in crops important for food security using gene editing.
Interesting crop breeding programs on hemp, hops and turfgrass were discussed in the 3rd session. With hops breeding, not only the physical characteristics of the plant is important, but also what taste it gives to the beer it is used in, thus breeding for taste is very important. In the 4th session, maize heirloom breeding was discussed where specific metabolic and nutritional properties are chosen over yield, for the use in the food industry, for instance, making tacos or popcorn in the speciality food industry. Quality protein popcorn is also a speciality trait bred for in Nebraska. Session 5 included presentations on big data and phenotyping and reiterated how important it is to link phenotype to genotype. In cases where it might be too difficult to have a big population of plants to assess, videogame software could be used to simulate synthetic images of plants. Session 6 was about understanding the interactions between crop plants and their microbiomes, looking at the genotype by genotype interactions. In this session, some of the speakers also talked about how varieties of hybrid maize as well as hybrid and inbred maize, differ in their rhizosphere composition and how this benefits the plant. Session 7 highlighted some breeding programs which are focused on biotic and abiotic stresses in crops. Heat stress is a very important abiotic stress which is observed more prevalently due to climate change. High-resolution 3D imaging technologies could be used successfully to assess phenotypic changes under different abiotic stresses for example looking at rice floret production under high heat conditions. Correlation between these images and yield will then be analysed and such data could be used successfully in breeding programs. The last session hosted lifelong successful plant breeders who shared some of the knowledge they acquired throughout their careers and gave us a bit of breeding history. Overall, I found this conference very informative and enriching. As a student from a biotech background, this conference taught me a lot about what is current in plant breeding and what trends will be followed in the future. I want to thank SAPBA for this opportunity.