Paul Moore, Secretary General of the International Sugar Cane Biotechnology Consortium (ICSB), visited the Cenicaña Experimental Station and spoke to the Newsletter about progress in this area and its future.
What is the objective of ICSB?
The purpose of ICSB is to promote biotech research in sugar cane. Advance molecular genetic research, genomics and genetic transformation as pure and applied sciences, and thus facilitate the exchange of information and the development of technologies that contribute to improving cultivation for the benefit of growers and producers. The ICSB provides a space for biotechnology research to be identified, evaluated, and funded cooperatively that would be difficult to address individually by Consortium members.
It brings together 13 countries and 17 large and small institutions, and the contributions of each member are in proportion to the cane and sugar productions of each country.
Compared to productive sectors such as corn, cotton, soybeans and others, how is the biotechnology research in sugar cane?
Biotechnology research in sugarcane has lagged behind other crops and that was one of the justifications for the formation of ICSB. There are several reasons for this lag: the cycles of cultivation and sexual reproduction are long. Furthermore, sugarcane is a much more genetically complex crop than those previously mentioned.
What is being sought with sugarcane biotechnology research?
The main objective of the research at the ICSB is to develop technologies that allow improving the efficiency of breeding programs so that the mutual work between biotechnologists and breeders contributes to the production of varieties with greater resistance to pests and diseases and better productivity characteristics. Among the approaches used, the development of genetic linkage maps that seeks to identify markers associated with genes that control traits of interest such as disease resistance, tolerance to water stress and the identification of important genes to use genetic transformation stands out. and produce new varieties with interesting traits.
How far or close are we from meeting these purposes?
It depends. If the trait of interest is encoded by a single or main gene, then it becomes a shorter process and we would be close to developing genetically improved varieties; If it is a quantitative trait encoded by a set of genes that are also under the influence of the environment, then it becomes a more complex process and it would still be far from meeting our objectives.
Is it profitable for agribusinesses in developing countries to invest in biotechnology?
The return on investment in biotechnology is not rapid, but it has the potential to have a large impact on the varietal improvement process. Biotechnology research is necessary to fully realize this potential.
But how can a small sugarcane grower benefit from the advances in biotechnology made by the Consortium?
That depends on how the Consortium members apply research knowledge and technologies to the development of improved crops in their local conditions.
The results in pathogen identification and genetic transformation have had a faster application than the results in genetics and genomics to support genetic improvement. For example, some ICSB members use the capacity we have today in the identification of the Yellow Leaf Virus through molecular tools to certify that the varieties in development are free of the disease. In addition, some have also been transformed to obtain resistance to insects and herbicides. These new varieties immediately benefit the grower.
You have mentioned in international conferences that current sugarcane production is 57% of its theoretical potential, based on the use of solar radiation. How would research in physiology and biotechnology contribute to achieving greater potential?
Physiology is essential to identify the factors of production and quantify the impact of each of these in the decrease in yields. After this initial work, through biotechnology (with new methodologies such as genome editing or genetic complementation) it is possible to confirm the hypotheses raised and try to correct the damaging factors.
Finally, how did you see the biotechnology research carried out by Cenicaña?
The Colombian agroindustry is known to have the highest productivity per unit area and this is due to a combination of varieties, fertile soils, and agronomic practices. The initiative to catalog varietal phenotypic data that is subsequently planned to be correlated with genomic data (which can now be obtained rapidly) is excellent. I am impressed with the work of sequencing and phenotyping 220 cane varieties that represent the genetic variability of the Cenicaña variety bank.
In a conventional investigation, each of these plants would be looked at in the laboratory, but what is being done here in Cenicaña is to obtain the information of the genome sequence of each of the varieties, with a massive phenotyping, which contemplates the measurement of many variables of agronomic importance, and the use of drones that take images of the crop that serve to interpret the variables of interest.
The GMO controversy
“The technology to produce transgenics exists and some countries are going to plant transgenic cane faster than others; however, that will depend a lot on what these same nations perceive from the consumer.
It has been reported that there is transgenic sugarcane ready to be planted commercially in Indonesia, Argentina and Brazil. In the United States it also exists, but it will not be commercially planted until it is certain that there is acceptance by the market.
Furthermore, at this time there is no problem in sugar cane that cannot be solved using conventional breeding. It is likely that when a problem arises that can only be solved with GMOs or can be more efficiently addressed through them then the scenario will be different.
For example, there is a lethal disease in the United States that affects orange groves and the orange juice consumed today comes from genetically modified fruits, but there is no greater resistance to its consumption, because in this case it is the only tool available. to manage illness.
I do not like the term GMO because it is perceived in a negative way and humans have modified the food we eat throughout history. The watermelon that exists today has nothing to do with what it was many years ago. This has been achieved through genetic improvement and that is genetic transformation ”.