How genetics can address agricultural problems: drought, sustainability and plague resistance

B·Debate and CRAG are bringing together top researchers in plant genomics in Barcelona from 9 to 11 October in order to take steps forward in improving plant genetics



Some 65 researchers from around the world are meeting in Barcelona for the scientific debate The Future of Plant Genomes. Harvesting Genes for Agriculture in order to share breakthroughs in plant genome sequencing and establish agreements as to where this research is heading and how it can have a positive impact on society. The sessions, organized by B·Debate —a joint initiative of Biocat and the “la Caixa” Foundation— and the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CSIC-IRTA-UAB-UB), will be held on 9, 10 and 11 October at CosmoCaixa in Barcelona.

Breakthroughs in cutting-edge sequencing tools have led to a drastic reduction in economic and human-resources costs, which opens up infinite possibilities for sequencing and analyzing genome characteristics of both animal and plant species. The focus of genome studies has changed radically, moving from analyzing small unique sequences to sequencing hundreds of whole individuals. Nowadays it is possible to obtain abundant data on some plant genomes and through careful analysis this will lead to extraordinary biological breakthroughs.

The global population eats a specific number of plant species, which are the foundation of our diet. Since the domestication of some species for agricultural use in ancient times, we have progressively improved these plants to obtain the current varietals, incorporating the characteristics and properties that best suit us. New sequencing tools will allow us to speed up these improvements in order to incorporate characteristics that address problems facing agriculture, like drought, climate change, sustainability and pathogen resistance, among others. “As well as recovering the taste of some fruit and vegetable species that had been lost in mass production,” explains Jordi Garcia-Mas, researcher at the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology (IRTA) and CRAG, and scientific leader of the debates.

Garcia-Mas, with Pere Puigdomènech —researcher with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and director of CRAG, who also participated in these debates—, heads up the Melonomics project, which has obtained the complete genome of the melon, a species of high economic interest around the world, and specific gene sequences for seven melon varietals. This is the first time a public/private initiative in Spain has obtained the complete genome of a higher plant species.

Scientists from the public and private sectors seek solutions

For three days, this group of experts in genomics and representatives from the top global biotechnology companies working in plant genomics will share their expertise in order to “reach conclusions as to whether researchers are on the right track, whether the genomic data obtained can be decoded and applied correctly, whether it can be used for practical applications,” adds Garcia-Mas.

One of the aims of this scientific debate is to analyze and define a road map for plant genomics research and for the application of revolutionary new genome sequencing tools to plants.

Among other benchmark international projects, Executive Director of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) Jun Wang will present the Million Species/Varieties Genomes Project, which is sequencing one million species and varieties of different plant and animal organisms; the Million Human Genomes Project, which studies mass sequencing in humans; and the Million Eco-System Genomes Project, which studies metagenomes. The BGI is one of the most important genome-sequencing centers in the world and is based in Hong Kong with branches in California (USA) and Denmark.

Michele Morgante, director of the Applied Genomics Institute of Udine (Italy) and professor of Genetics and the University of Udine, who participated in the sequencing of the grape and peach genomes, will explain the latest breakthroughs in the analysis of the structure of these genomes. Luis Herrera-Estrella, professor and director of the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Mexico, will present the breakthroughs that allowed them to obtain the genome for a small-genome carnivorous plant. And Antoni Rafalski, research fellow at DuPont Pioneer, Genetic Discovery Group, an American multinational corporation that is a leader in corn sales, will look at genomics research from a business point of view and explain his main lines of research and how they use genome sequencing technology to obtain genetically improved plants.

The scientific debates begin on 9 October at 9 am, with “la Caixa” Foundation Deputy Director of Research and the Environment Ignasi López, Biocat CEO Montserrat Vendrell and CRAG director Pere Puigdomènech.