9.2.1 What is Plant Breeding?

Plant breeding is the purposeful manipulation of plant species in order to create desired plant types that are better suited for cultivation, give better yields and are disease resistant.

Conventional plant breeding has been practiced for thousands of years, since the beginning of human civilisation; recorded evidence of plant breeding dates back to 9,000-11,000 years ago. Many present-day crops are the result of domestication in ancient times.

Today, all our major food crops are derived from domesticated varieties. Classical plant breeding involves crossing or hybridisation of pure lines, followed by artificial selection to produce plants with desirable traits of higher yield, nutrition and resistance to diseases.

With advancements in genetics, molecular biology and tissue culture, plant breeding is now increasingly being carried out by using molecular genetic tools. If we were to list the traits or characters that the breeders have tried to incorporate into crop plants, the first we would list would be increased crop yield and improved quality.

Increased tolerance to environmental stresses (salinity, extreme temperatures, drought), resistance to pathogens (viruses, fungi and bacteria) and increased tolerance to insect pests would be on our list too.

Plant breeding programmes are carried out in a systematic way worldwide–in government institutions and commercial companies. The main steps in breeding a new genetic variety of a crop are –

  • Collection of variability: Genetic variability is the root of any breeding programme. In many crops pre-existing genetic variability is available from wild relatives of the crop.

Collection and preservation of all the different wild varieties, species and relatives of the cultivated species (followed by their evaluation for their characteristics) is a pre-requisite for effective exploitation of natural genes available in the populations. The entire collection (of plants/seeds) having all the diverse alleles for all genes in a given crop is called germplasm collection.

 

  • Evaluation and selection of parents: The germplasm is evaluated so as to identify plants with desirable combination of characters. The selected plants are multiplied and used in the process of hybridisation. Purelines are created wherever desirable and possible.

 

  • Cross hybridisation among the selected parents: The desired characters have very often to be combined from two different plants (parents), for example high protein quality of one parent may need to be combined with disease resistance from another parent.

 

This is possible by cross hybridising the two parents to produce hybrids that genetically combine the desired characters in one plant. This is a very time-consuming and tedious process since the pollen grains from the desirable plant chosen as male parent have to be collected and placed on the stigma of the flowers selected as female parent (In chapter 2 details on how to make crosses have been described).

Also, it is not necessary that the hybrids do combine the desirable characters; usually only one in few hundred to a thousand crosses shows the desirable combination.

 

  • Selection and testing of superior recombinants : This step consists of selecting, among the progeny of the hybrids, those plants that have the desired character combination.

The selection process is crucial to the success of the breeding objective and requires careful scientific evaluation of the progeny. This step yields plants that are superior to both of the parents (very often more than one superior progeny plant may become available).

These are self-pollinated for several generations till they reach a state of uniformity (homozygosity?), so that the characters will not segregate in the progeny.

  • Testing, release and commercialisation of new cultivars: The newly selected lines are evaluated for their yield and other agronomic traits of quality, disease resistance, etc.

This evaluation is done by growing these in the research fields and recording their performance under ideal fertiliser application irrigation, and other crop management practices.

The evaluation in research fields is followed by testing the materials in farmers’ fields, for at least three growing seasons at several locations in the country, representing all the agroclimatic zones where the crop is usually grown. The material is evaluated in comparison to the best available local crop cultivar – a check or reference cultivar.

 

India is mainly an agricultural country. Agriculture accounts for approximately 33 per cent of India’s GDP and employs nearly 62 per cent of the population.

After India’s independence, one of the main challenges facing the country was that of producing enough food for the increasing population. As only limited land is fit for cultivation, India has to strive to increase yields per unit area from existing farm land.

The development of several high yielding varieties of wheat and rice in the mid-1960s, as a result of various plant breeding techniques led to dramatic increase in food production in our country. This phase is often referred to as the Green Revolution. Figure 9.3 represents some Indian hybrid crops of high yeilding varieties.

 

Wheat and Rice: During the period 1960 to 2000, wheat production increased from 11 million tones to 75 million tonnes while rice production went up from 35 million tonnes to 89.5 million tonnes.

This was due to the development of semi-dwarf varieties of wheat and rice. Nobel laureate Norman E. Borlaug, at International Centre for Wheat and Maize Improvement in Mexico, developed semi-dwarf wheat.

In 1963, several varieties such as Sonalika and Kalyan Sona, which were high yielding and disease resistant, were introduced all over the wheat-growing belt of India. Semi-dwarf rice varieties were derived from IR-8, (developed at International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Philippines) and Taichung Native-1 (from Taiwan). The derivatives were introduced in 1966. Later better-yielding semidwarf varieties Jaya and Ratna were developed in India.

Sugar cane: Saccharum barberi was originally grown in north India, but had poor sugar content and yield. Tropical canes grown in south India Saccharum officinarum had thicker stems and higher sugar content but did not grow well in north India.

These two species were successfully crossed to get sugar cane varieties combining the desirable qualities of high yield, thick stems, high sugar and ability to grow in the sugar cane areas of north India.

Millets: Hybrid maize, jowar and bajra have been successfully developed in India. Hybrid breeding have led to the development of several high yielding varieties resistant to water stress.

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