Plant breeding has existed for centuries, but so much has changed in the last ten years! As a result of the intensified collaboration between breeders and laboratories, the possibilities are endless and the breeding process can be three to four generations shorter than in the past.
Will the sweet pepper turn red or yellow on the plant? Will the tomato be round or plum-shaped? These characteristics are already known, before the first fruit even appears on the plant. And the number of characteristics of a plant that scientists can analyse is only increasing. “Not so long ago, we would have about ten plant characteristics on which we could test a hybrid,” explains Mike Heimerikx (Manager Molecular Markers). “That soon become one hundred and we are now well on our way to a thousand.” With the increased knowledge and available techniques, the role of the laboratories has increased strongly and the disciplines have converged more and more in recent years. “After testing for certain characteristics, we can also use thousands of markers per plant to ‘map’ the DNA. Markers are like flags on the DNA which allow us to compare the progeny of a cross to the parent. These markers provide essential information to plant breeders to make choices in the selection process.”
“Imagine that you have a fantastic variety, but it is lacking a certain characteristic,” explains Karin van Langen (Biotech Breeder Cucumber). “For example a certain flavour structure. I then inform the lab that I am looking for a plant that is as similar as possible to that one plant, but that a specific ‘DNA package’ needs to be identical to that of the other plant. The breeder then crosses the original variety with the plant that has this flavour structure as a characteristic. The DNA of the progeny is then studied. We are effectively looking for a specific ‘fingerprint’.” And the developments are moving quickly. For example, being able to predict characteristics - by mapping the DNA of an entire variety - is now within reach.
And then we haven’t even discussed Hybrids (the result of crossing two pure parent lines, making all descendants and the seed identical), DH (double haploid technique, in which a pollen grain grows into a plant and the cell and tissue culture laboratory can create a pure parent line in a single generation) and Cell & Tissue Culture (in which ‘prematurely born’ hybrids are placed in a type of incubator to grow into a healthy plant). In short: breeding is no longer possible without the lab.
All this information is great, but it needs to be streamlined and stored. Heimerikx: “We also need automation and bio-informatics in order to make optimum use of new techniques and knowledge. These disciplines will really take off now and in the future.” The amount of data is not the only issue, the speed of the developments is another factor to consider. Van Langen is very confident about this: “With good scientists and a close collaboration with - among others - Wageningen University and KeyGene, we are leading the way. And that is essential, because the sooner we develop a good variety, the sooner our customer can set himself apart in his own market.”