DAPA researchers on the hunt for valuable wild plants
On a intensely hot afternoon this past week, a visitor to the Decision and Policy Analysis (DAPA) research group would have found a strange and very uncommon sight. The offices were empty, computers and paperwork abandoned. Instead, DAPA staff had organized themselves into small groups, and were running across the CIAT campus in search of botanical treasure. In a mixture of sweat, dirt, and laughter, the groups were competing to be the first to arrive back to their offices after having filled out collecting permits, obtained approval from the authorities, and then collected valuable wild plants for future use in crop breeding.
Crop wild relatives are the wild plant cousins of cultivated food, fiber, industrial, and other crops. Because of their close evolutionary history to crops, they may still be hybridized with crop varieties to introduce valuable ‘wild’ traits- such as pest and disease resistance, and tolerance to abiotic stress- as well, seemingly ironically, as quality traits such as fruit size, taste, and color. Crop wild relatives have contributed to the productivity of a long and growing list of important crops, and their use for adaptation of crops to climate change in the future is expected to be significant.
Unfortunately, as with many wild plants, crop wild relatives are threatened in the wild by habitat destruction, the transition from traditional to industrial agricultural practices, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. Due to these pressures many unique populations of the wild relatives are declining in size and are fragmenting.
The Crop Wild Relatives project team in DAPA has been working on a multi-year project to identify important crop wild relative species, to map their native distributions across the world, and to determine how well collected and conserved these species are, in order to assess the degree to which breeders in the present and future will have the wild genetic diversity available to them that they will need for their breeding activities. All of the information generated by the world is available to the global community, and the results are being used by the project Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives to prioritize collecting missions around the world. Later the collected seeds will be conserved in national and global genebanks, and bred in order to make them useful to breeders particularly in developing countries.
In an hour of experiential education, DAPA colleagues were given the opportunity to go through a corollary process- figuring out what species occur around CIAT, obtaining a mock collecting permit through appropriate channels, and then collecting (in this case, photos) of crop wild relatives of peanut, cacao, finger millet, and bean. By the end of the hour it was apparent that everybody had won the competition, through getting out of the office, working up a sweat, and learning a bit more about the valuable wild plants underneath our feet.