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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

The Importance of the Ugly Cousins (Coffee with: Nora Castañeda)

Nora Castañeda is a PhD student in Biosciences and is part of the Crop Wild Relatives team of CIAT. In this ‘coffee with’ she explains what this team is about, the projects they are working on and their collaboration with other themes within and outside of CIAT.

“Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) are like the ‘ugly cousins’ of the crops as we know them, with differentiating traits useful for agriculture”. These relatives live in or near disturbed agricultural areas, usually not depending on human intervention to ensure their survival. Understanding CWR is important for agriculture as these species can have some characteristics that might be useful for improving the crops that we depend upon, especially now that agriculture is facing challenging conditions such as climate change and reduced availability of inputs as water and fertilizers.

Arachis duranensis. Peanut ancestor. CENARGEN, Brazil. Photo by: NP Castañeda

Arachis duranensis. Peanut ancestor. CENARGEN, Brazil. Photo by: NP Castañeda

When humans once started the process of plant domestication, genetic diversity of the resulting cultivated species was narrowed as a consequence. However there are many other species that our ancestors didn’t pick. These other species contain genes that have allowed them to grow under harsher climates, including drought prone regions, soils with high contents of salts or aluminum and extreme temperature variations.

Plant breeders require sources of pest and disease resistance, tolerance to heat and drought, among other abiotic stresses, as well as higher contents of micronutrients and quality related traits.  Some of these traits can be found hidden within old and modern varieties of these crops, as well as within the wild relatives of crops (CWR), as long as this material is conserved and available in plant genebanks.

This conservation is of main importance and it is therefore that “the main objective of the work we do is to target the wild relatives needing urgent ex situ conservation, collect them and prepare them for their use in breeding” (for more info, click here). This way, the closest wild relatives of important crop species will be safeguarded, ensuring that important characteristics are conserved and can be used in adapting agriculture to climate change.

“From CIAT-DAPA we intend to give information on the priorities of which species to safeguard and the sites where to collect this plant material”. Through the ‘Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives’ (CWR Project), about 1000 CWR species were assessed, identifying priorities for collection and regions where each of them are naturally distributed. “One of the main tools developed over the past three years is a Crop Wild Relative Global Atlas”. This Atlas provides the opportunity to explore distributions and conservation concerns in geographic regions, crop gene pools, or particular CWR species of interest.

Using maps of the species found as priorities, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is preparing Seed Collecting Guides to provide collectors in the field with as much information as possible about these wild plants, so that they are able to find them and collect their seeds: the collecting guide contains a description of what the target plants look like, when they are going to have ripe seeds, where they are found, and also has some photos to help identification.

Solanum commersonni (a wild relative of potato) Photocredit: Ariana Digilio (INTA, Balcarce)

Solanum commersonni (a wild relative of potato)
Photocredit: Ariana Digilio (INTA, Balcarce)

Although the information we have gathered is massive, there will always be some gaps and some areas in which more research and action would be necessary. “We research about 80 crops. The majority of these crops are for food security, but there is also another group: the group of crops that generate income, such as coffee and tea. It would be great to receive more information on that group. Also, right now we only work with one type of forage, but it would be interesting to include more crops from tropic forages, to be able to include this information and highlight the need to conserve these seeds also gene banks“.

CWR is a pretty cross-cutting theme. “Centers and teams we work with are: The International Potato Center (CIP) (we are refining our analysis with additional data provided by them, preparing publications out of the analysis made and they are using this information to set priorities for collections); the University of British Columbia (we are using our results and merging it with genetic information for the sunflowers), the Centre for Genetic Resources in the Netherlands (for the lettuce) and the Natural History Museum (for the eggplant and tomato).

Within CIAT we work closely with Julian Ramirez, who first designed the gap analysis methodology. We also collaborate with the team of Terra-I: it is interesting and necessary to see how the changes in vegetation detected by Terra-I, affect the populations of some of the wild relatives in the region. The same goes for the team of climate change. Crop wild relatives give us the flexibility of mashing-up with other topics and finding other interactions with other specialized knowledge”.

More efforts are needed to highlight the importance of conserving CWR in target groups as conservationists, policymakers and the general public. They are a perfect example of elements from biodiversity with real and potential uses.

Crop Wild Relatives is a research team within the Decision and Policy Analysis group of CIAT. This group is made up of: Nora Castañeda, Colin Khoury, Harold Achicanoy, Chrystian Sosa and Alex Castañeda

For pictures look at this Flickr Album

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