Proposed center to focus on plant breeding
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is moving to solidify its position as the premier plant breeding institution in the nation by establishing a Center for Plant Breeding and Applied Plant Genomics.
Dr. Charles Stuber, professor emeritus of genetics, is leading the effort to establish the new center. Stuber, who retired in 1998, said Dr. Steven Leath, associate dean of the College and director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service, asked him to come out of retirement and work part-time to develop and establish the center.
Stuber said establishment of a center will focus attention and resources on plant breeding at a time when resources tend to flow to molecular genetics and all its permutations, from genomics to proteomics and metabolomics.
Despite the seemingly limitless potential of molecular genetics to harness and shape the genomes of a range of organisms from agricultural animals to crops and bacteria, Stuber argues there is still a great need for plant breeders.
If the promise of molecular genetics is to be realized, he points out, plant breeders must evaluate attempts to develop plants with useful traits, no matter the method used to produce the plants.
Plant breeders, Stuber adds, are trained to work in the field, dealing with the often exasperating range of variables that entails. And, he points out, the successful development of new varieties usually depends on the manipulation of quantitative traits, traits controlled by a multitude of genes, which in turn may be influenced by environmental conditions.
"Take a trait like grain yield," says Stuber. "Probably every gene in the plant affects grain yield."
Molecular genetics offers an unprecedented ability to manipulate the genome through various transformation technologies, yet genetic transformation typically involves the manipulation of only a gene at a time rather than the suite of genes that influence a quantitative trait. And where any type of genetic manipulation is concerned, the law of unintended consequences often comes into play.
"Genes don't individually act in a vacuum," Stuber explains. "You can put genes in a plant, but they may not act like you think they will."
Indeed, Stuber contends the work of plant breeders is imperative for the successful development of new varieties.
"You've got to have good field phenotypic data," he says.
Although breeding of major crops, such as corn and soybeans, is now done largely by private industry, many of the so-called "minor crops," such as peanuts as well as many fruits and vegetables, rely on breeding in public institutions.
Stuber says that private sector breeding programs for peanuts are almost nonexistent, and much of the breeding for major crops such as corn and soybeans is done at Midwest locations.
"Private industry breeders seem to believe they can breed in the Midwest, then take the material to the South," Stuber says, pointing out that a plant adapted to Midwestern conditions may not necessarily do well in the South. So even where major crops are concerned, Stuber believes there is a need in the South and Southeast for public sector breeders.
Stuber hopes a plant breeding center will enhance what he calls "an intellectual community" in the College that will include both plant breeders and molecular geneticists.
"We've got more plant breeders than any other university," says Stuber. He has compiled a list of 23 faculty members whom he calls "core" plant breeders. Beyond those core breeders, however, Stuber has a list of 60 additional faculty members whose work touches plant breeding.
A major emphasis of the center will be to bolster efforts to train the next generation of plant breeders. He says academic opportunities have diminished as many universities have cut back plant breeding programs. And the intensified focus on plant breeding that a center could provide may help generate funding for infrastructure. Stuber points out, for example, that successful plant breeding programs must have adequate and dependable seed storage facilities along with other infrastructure.
To be sure, the process of establishing a center has just begun. Stuber is seeking permission to plan the center. Once the planning process is approved, he will submit a request through the College to the University of North Carolina system to establish the center. He says he is ready to submit that request and is hopeful the center will be established sometime in 2007.