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- Agriculture in the developing world: Connecting innovations in plant research to downstream applications

Agriculture in the developing world: Connecting innovations in plant research to downstream applications

Deborah P. Delmer*

+Author Affiliation

Food Security, the Rockefeller Foundation, New York, NY 10018-2702Contributed by Deborah P. Delmer, July 14, 2005

PNAS November 1, 2005 vol. 102 no. 44 15739-15746.



Enhancing agricultural productivity in those areas of the world bypassed by the Green Revolution will require new approaches that provide incentives and funding mechanisms that promote the translation of new innovations in plant science into concrete benefits for poor farmers. Through better dialogue, plant breeders and laboratory scientists from both the public and private-sectors need to find solutions for the key constraints to crop production, many of which center around abiotic and biotic stresses. The revolution in plant genomics has opened up new perspectives and opportunities for plant breeders who can now apply molecular markers to assess and enhance diversity in their germplasm collections, to introgress valuable traits from new sources, and to identify genes that control key traits. Functional genomics is also providing another powerful route to the identification of such genes. The ability to introgress beneficial genes under the control of specific promoters through transgenic approaches is yet one more stepping stone in the path to targeted approaches to crop improvement, and the new sciences have identified a vast array of genes that have exciting potential for crop improvement. For a few crops with viable markets, such as maize and cotton, some of the traits developed by the private sector are already showing benefits for farmers of the developing world, but the public sector will need to develop new skills and overcome a number of hurdles to carry out similar efforts for other crops and traits useful to very poor farmers.

  • crop genomics


By the year 2015, all 191 members of the United Nations (UN) member states have pledged to meet eight important development goals. Of these, the first goal, to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and whose income is less than one dollar per day, is most relevant to the plant science community. Because >70% of the extreme poor who suffer from hunger live in rural areas, the effort to enhance agricultural productivity will be a key factor in achieving this goal and is listed as a key goal by the UN Hunger Task Force (1).

This challenge comes at a time when the plant sciences are witnessing remarkable progress in understanding fundamental processes involved in plant growth and development. Complete genome sequences for the reference plant species Arabidopsis thaliana and, more recently, for rice and poplar are now available, with others sure to follow. Through a variety of functional genomics approaches, plant scientists are increasingly able to identify and characterize genes that control key processes, while breeders worldwide are beginning to recognize the power that genomics can bring to their efforts for crop improvement. Sadly, it is also a time when the growth rate of global crop and livestock production is on the decline, especially for farmers in subSaharan Africa, where per capita production is actually declining (2). Such a situation indicates the urgency of finding better ways to translate the new advances in the world of basic plant science into concrete successes in the field of global agriculture. From my own personal experience working most of my life in academia and now the past few years with the Rockefeller Foundation, I can testify to the existence of a fairly high degree of “disconnect” between those who work at the lab bench and those who work in the field. This article is an attempt to analyze both the constraints and the opportunities presented by the challenge to translate new discoveries in plant sciences into successes in agriculture for the benefit of the poor of the world.


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