Plant breeders have achieved some significant genetic modifications of plant species. Crop domestication, although unrecorded for most plants, provided the critical foundation for subsequent cycles of distribution, adaptation, mating, and selection. Some products of those cycles include rice and wheat of short stature and increased yield, beets (Beta vulgaris L.) with increased sucrose concentration, Brassica napus L.with edible oil, the forms of Brassica oleracea L. (e.g., cauliflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, and brussels sprouts), and high-yielding maize (corn). The achievements with rice and wheat (the Green Revolution) significantly enhanced food production for billions of persons and were partially recognized in 1970 when Norman Borlaug received a Nobel Prize for his role in developing and promoting new cultivars of wheat.
In the United States maize is an example of a crop that has been quickly and significantly modified through plant breeding. Maize is a tropical grass domesticated by central American natives, possibly from the wild relative teosinte (Zea mexicana). It was cultivated throughout the Americas before the colonization by Europeans, who adopted and expanded maize production. In the 1920s breeding methods changed dramatically: inbred lines (parents) were developed through generations of self-pollination and selection; the inbred lines were mated in specific combinations; many combinations were tested; a few combinations exhibited exceptional vigor and productivity; and the seed produced from selected matings was grown as the crop (i.e., the F1 or hybrid generation of the mating between the inbred lines). Previously, breeding methods in the United States emphasized selection of seed and individual plants produced through random, uncontrolled matings within locally adapted varieties and such open-pollinated seed was grown as the crop. In the 1930s farmers quickly substituted hybrid cultivars for the open-pollinated cultivars because the hybrids had higher and more consis tent yield. Concomitantly, management practices changed. The average grain yield of maize increased from 30 to 120 bushels per acre from the 1930s to the 1990s. About 50 percent of the increase is due to genetic changes mediated by breeding for higher yield of grain, resistance to biotic and abiotic stress, and the ability to respond to more intensive management (e.g., increased application of fertilizer and seeding rates).
Plant Breeding Programs and Germplasm Reserves. The target environment and societies' goals sometimes change in dynamic and unpredictable ways that render existing cultivars obsolete. Cultivars with improved adaptation may be bred if genetic variation (i.e., genes and combinations thereof) exists for the traits of interest. To manage this uncertainty, germplasm reserves or gene banks have been established worldwide with the primary goals of collecting and maintaining the broadest possible array of genetic variation for economically important plant species. In the United States a network of Plant Introduction Stations are financed by the federal and state governments to provide this service. The reserves are important because:
• the gene pool of existing cultivars represents only a subsample of the genetic variation for a given species
• favorable genes are certainly contained in other gene pools
• human activity has reduced the native gene pools of most crop species and their wild relatives in agricultural and natural settings
• the reserves have provided useful genes
• methods for investigating gene pools have been crude but there are good prospects for improvement
• our ability to engineer genes and complete organisms to meet the demands of crop production is woefully inadequate and will need all the help provided by nature. see also Breeder; Cultivar; Genetic Engineering; Green Revolution; Hybrids and Hybridization; Polyploidy; Propagation; Reproduction, Sexual; Seeds.
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