Biotech Discovery in Syria Speeds Pace of Innovation

If pinpointing a single beneficial trait among more than 6 million plant seed samples buried in the world’s 1,700 agricultural gene banks sounds taxing, a GIS-based tool developed and refined by a team of researchers in Syria over the past six years has made the job a relative walk in the park. The new method, dubbed “FIGS” – short for “Focus Identification of Germplasm Strategy” – uses mathematics and geographical information to rapidly locate useful traits that can help produce new crop varieties with resistance to drought, frost, pests and disease.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), based in Aleppo, says it is now working to spread the practice among the global scientific community. Compared to classic large-scale screening methods, where “finding candidate samples with the desirable trait is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack,” the FIGS approach hones in on area it has thoroughly environmentally profiled to grab resistance genes, says Ken Street, the team’s lead scientist.

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One success story for FIGS thus far is the hunt for breadwheat types with resistance to the Sunn Pest insect, which causes huge losses to crops in Central and West Asia and North Africa. The FIGS team identified 12 resistant accessions, which are now being used in the ICARDA breeding program, and are available on request. “People have been searching for that gene for 10 years and we found it in one season,” says Street.

Another example is resistance to the Syrian Russian wheat aphid. “This is a particularly virulent pest and there wasn’t any resistance to it. We did the FIGS thing, looking at environments likely to favor high pest loads and found 10 sources of resistance in new genes. So it’s working,” he says.

The tool has been also been successfully applied to wheat stem rust resistance, and FIGS-selected material has been requested by more than 20 crop research institutes around the world. India’s agricultural research community plans to use FIGS to speed up its innovation process for crop development.

Editor’s Note: Look for more developments in biotechnology in the February issue of Farm Chemicals International.