Wild relatives may not be so crazy after all

by Madison Brown

Recently, I came across an article pertaining to a study done on the use of ‘Crop Wild Relatives.’ This study analyzed the wild relatives of crops widely used across the globe to analyze qualities such as drought-tolerance and heat resistance, amongst other more desirable traits plant breeders seek out as our climactic patterns continue to become less and less predictable.

Climatologists and weather forecasters are already calling for another El Nino event to begin this fall. El Nino typically brings weather extremes such as abnormally rainy, warm winters and dry summers. In the world of food production, this means crops struggle to survive respective seasons. For consumers, this can lead to shortages of their favorite fruits and vegetables and in the worst-case grains and other staple crops. In turn, this leads to shortages of livestock feed. These threats result in plant breeders and researchers to investigate ‘wild’ relatives to these crops that in their current form may have lost the ability to adapt.

Staple crops such as rice, barley, chickpea and sunflowers were all analyzed throughout said study. The crops analyzed in this study are major sources of carbohydrates, plant-based protein (legumes) as well as oils and are cultivated consistently throughout the world. By providing information pertaining to commonly cultivated crops, their ‘cousins’ so to speak can be analyzed to provide further understanding of said crops genetics and how the variability can provide both good and bad references of its behavior and survival in the future, or potential improvements to current cultivars. It seems the overall goal here is to increase biodiversity. However, this study left-out major oil crops such as soybeans and corn, which are responsible for ethanol, bio-diesel and other petroleum alternatives that continue to increase in utilization every year.

This article and the information it presented is compelling because our team has been applying these same principles in a process to domesticate Pongamia Pinnata, a native to India and Australia and a wild, tropical relative to legumes we consume and utilize in industrial processes every day. Native to the tropics, Pongamia is naturally drought and tolerant to most temperature and weather extremes. Considering current predictions of our climate and weather patterns for the future, Pongamia seems to fit the bill as a “Wild Relative” for future oilseed crop production.

pods 1

However, Pongamia is vastly different in that it is a tree crop, thus providing other major environmental benefits to our planet. One benefit is carbon sequestration as all trees consume significantly larger amounts of CO2 to complete photosynthesis. In addition, Pongamia is a legume – meaning it “fixes” its own nitrogen through a symbiotic process involving tiny organisms living in the soil. These organisms are called Rhizobia and they participate in a symbiotic relationship with their host by feeding on photosynthates (carbohydrates and sugars provided by photosynthesis), whilst providing nitrogen to their host. Nitrogen also happens to be the most limiting nutrient to plant growth.  With these characteristics, Pongamia can provide us with a clean, forward-thinking alternative to soybeans and other oilseed crops.

Overall, it is both refreshing and exciting to learn other scientists and organizations are performing similar research to ours, on the same path to increasing sustainability and biodiversity on this beautiful planet we call home.

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