About 300 plant scientists representing 30 countries gathered in Thailand to discuss new dynamics and challenges in breeding and genomics of Solanaceae crops like tomato, pepper, eggplant, tobacco and potato.
The 15th Solanaceae Conference focuses on new breeding technologies and the latest scientific achievements for crop improvement, as well as biodiversity and environmental stresses, with about 60 talks and 80 poster presentations given over the five-day program.
Dr Darush Struss, conference lead, said: “Since 2003, the Solanaceae community meets annually to exchange knowledge on scientific research progress in the Solanaceae species. In the last few years that we’ve been gathering, substantial progress has been made in our understanding of the genetic diversity and the plant breeding techniques supporting the most important programs to improve Solanaceae crops. This is the first time the conference is organized by a private company in collaboration with the public sector.”
Co-hosted by Chiang Mai University and East-West Seed, the conference is one of the many public-private partnerships between the university and the leading tropical vegetable seed company. Chiang Mai University was represented by Dr Nuttha Potapohn, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, and Dr Sampan Singharajwarapan, Vice President of the University, who officially welcomed the delegates.
L-R: Dr Darush Struss, conference lead and East-West Seed Group Biotechnology and Molecular Plant Breeding Manager; Dr Matthew Willmann of the Cornell University Plant Transformation Facility, Dr Nuttha Potapohn of Chiang Mai University; and Mr Bert van der Feltz, CEO of East-West Seed addressing the media’s question during the press forum.
Bert van der Feltz, President and CEO of East-West Seed, said during his opening remarks: “We believe in promoting cross pollination of talent and knowledge. That is why we work with leading research and knowledge centers on agriculture, worldwide. We believe in encouraging dialogue and science-supported conversations on the latest breeding innovations that will impact not only the scientific community, but most especially the farmers.”
The challenge to improve crops in a changing world
Scientists believe that using genomics and biotechnology in plant breeding leads to improved seed varieties that can help farmers to get higher yields to feed billions of people around the world. One of those scientists is Dr Matthew Willmann, Director of Cornell University’s Plant Transformation Facility and a known figure in plant biotechnology.
In his plenary talk on The Impact of Genome Editing on Crop Improvement, Dr Willmann said: “Plant scientists are constantly striving to improve crop plants in ways that directly benefit consumers, farmers, and food processors. These efforts are guided by a need to address a set of fundamental problems, including a rapidly growing world population, a changing climate, an ongoing battle against pathogens and insects, worsening soils, the negative effects of agriculture on the environment, and the need for tastier and more nutritious foods.”
Dr Willmann added, “Researchers have used traditional plant breeding and transgenesis to address these issues, but both have significant disadvantages. Recently, genome editing has become reliable in plants, and this advance has the potential to dramatically speed research and crop improvement.”
Solanaceae: important economic and agricultural crops
Solanaceae crops are major economic and agricultural products worldwide. Tomatoes are one of the most consumed vegetable crops, grown on more than 5 million hectares of farmland with 180 million tons fresh and processed tomatoes produced globally every year. China is the largest producer of tomatoes, followed by the United States and India. Other major players in the tomato market are the European Union and Turkey. Together, these top five tomato producers supply around 70% of the global production.
Eggplant is mainly grown in Asian tropical and subtropical regions (94% of world production), with China and India as the biggest producers globally, yielding 29 million tons and 13 million tons per year respectively.
Peppers are grown in 4 million hectares of land, with worldwide production reaching 34 million tons of fresh peppers and 4 million tons of dry peppers. Asia is the biggest producer of fresh and dry peppers, accounting for 70% of total production. Thailand is the 3rd largest dry pepper producer, following India and China.
Solanaceae crops are major sources of income for many farmers. Future trends in production, trade and consumption of these major crops will influence breeding goals:
- More and more consumers care about food safety and will be willing to pay a higher price for quality and safe-to-eat vegetables.
- Protected cultivation will continue to grow, especially for specialized products to suit premium demands (niche segments).
- Farmers will gradually move to mechanized harvesting (because of increasing labor costs) and improved cultivation techniques like grafted seedlings.
- Distribution channels with gradually move from wet market to supermarket as well as e-commerce. Modern retail channels will require year round supply.
- Food processing will continue to advance.
- International trade will become more regional, through rail, sea, and road. Air freight will lessen.
“Cross pollination” of talent and knowledge
The conference is expected to contribute to stronger ties between researchers and plant breeders in the public and private sectors.
About 80 poster presentations on the latest in Solanaceae breeding techniques
“East-West Seed believes in ‘partnership heterosis’ -- enhancing research and innovation through stronger interaction between the seed industry and academia,” said van der Feltz. The company is active in joint research with universities and knowledge institutes. In 2017, it had 25 projects with public sector partners worth approx. USD 1.32 million. Some of these public-private partnerships include:
Programs with Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) - BIOTEC:
- Development of detection of polerovirus causing yellowing disease in cucurbit plants
- Development of Efficient Inoculation Protocols for Tomato Necrotic Ringspot Virus and Capsicum Chlorosis Virus Resistance Screening in Tomato
- Development of multiplex detection for seed borne viroids using nucleotide-based bead array technology
- Development of Efficient Inoculation Protocols for Tomato Necrotic Ringspot Virus and Capsicum Chlorosis Virus Resistance Screening in Tomato (APSA consortium)
- First horticultural gene bank in Indonesia built through cooperation with Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM)
- Collaboration on crop germplasm conservation, research and training at the National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory, Institute of Plant Breeding, University of the Philippines
- 5-year research partnership signed with Chiang Mai University
- THB 1 million donation to the Center for Agricultural Biotechnology at Kasetsart University for Thailand’s first bioinformatics supercomputer dedicated to agriculture research
- With Khon Kaen University, seed multiplication and characterization of tomato germplasm accessions were done by EWS on the request of the university.
- With Kasetsart University, varieties were provided to EWS to assist the university in bioassay and identifying genes for resistance to Bacterial Wilt and TYLCV.