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The process of developing new crop varieties can take almost 25 years, using the conventional plant breeding methods like mass selection, inbreeding, and cross-breeding. However, the recent advancements in Agricultural Biotechnology and Gene Technology has considerably shortened this time. Although most of the crop varieties that we have today have been produced using traditional breeding methods, they are no longer sufficient to satisfy our current and future needs. Many of these developments in the field of DNA technology has brought significant improvements to the plant breeding process.
Recently, many new technological advancements have occurred in the field of agricultural biotechnology. Innovations in molecular biology have significantly improved and accelerated the conventional plant breeding techniques. Molecular markers that are linked to various genetic traits are used in assessing the genotype and developing new plant varieties. This led to the development of Marker Assisted Selection (MAS), a technique which improves the efficiency with which breeders can select plants with desirable combinations of genes. With the help of gene markers or molecular markers, specific genes that are associated with a particular trait of interest can be identified. Gene markers are positioned near the DNA sequence of the desired gene and are transferred from one generation to the next by the standard laws of inheritance. Since these markers and genes are located close to each other on the same chromosome, they tend to stay close together as each generation of plants is produced and this is called Genetic Linkage. This linkage helps scientists to analyze for a specific trait at the seedling stage itself and in turn, helps farmers to save time and reduce investments for space for breeding experiments and avoid severe harvest losses.
From a breeder’s perspective, selecting efficient and effective crop traits, avoiding genotype-environment interaction and bringing new varieties to market in a shorter time are the top priorities. The discovery of gene markers that control some of the most important agronomic traits have paved way for marker-assisted selection in several crop varieties. Some of the PCR-based marker systems that are used in plant breeding are Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism (AFLP), Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP), Simple Sequence Repeats (SSR), Sequence Tagged Sites (STS), and Random Amplification of Polymorphic DNA (RAPD).
Marker-assisted selection is now widely used in a variety of crops like rice, wheat, maize, barley, soybean, hemp etc. While simple traits like flower color, are controlled by a single gene, complex traits like pathogen resistance, drought resistance, etc. are controlled by more than one gene. For example, one of the major challenges in tomato cultivation is severe crop losses caused by pathogens. Although conventional breeding methods have significantly helped in improving the resistance of tomato, making crosses and back-crosses have been very time-consuming. More than 40 genes in tomato that are associated with resistance to major classes of pathogens have been mapped and sequenced. These maps are used in pyramiding resistance genes in tomato through marker-assisted selection, where several resistance genes can be stacked into a single genome and have resulted in tomato varieties with resistance to multiple pathogens.
There are various reasons for plant breeders to respond to changing needs and continuously develop new crop varieties. Changes in the agricultural practices, consumer preferences, increasing water scarcity, decreasing arable land, newly emerging pathogens and pests, climate change, increase in population, and other environmental changes are forcing plants breeders to adopt newer approaches in plant selection and breeding. These tools and techniques are immensely helpful in improving plant traits like crop yield, disease resistance, drought tolerance etc. This, in turn, helps to produce sustainable crops, to address food security issues, and also to produce novel biomaterials. Though MAS can immensely accelerate conventional breeding methods, it cannot be used as a complete substitute for the same.
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