Innovators in Plant Breeding, from Mendel to CRISPR.
Plant breeding has been around for more than 10,000 years and grafting was pioneered by farmers in China 4,000 years ago and has been a well-established practice all over the world for centuries. The science of crossbreeding took a big leap 150 years ago thanks to the work of Gregor Mendel, a mathematician and monk, who inadvertently became known as “the father of modern genetics”. He did not even set out to prove genetics, but happened across this new science by chance. He was somewhat like Christopher Columbus, who discovered the Americas but thought he was in India.
Mendel conducted experiments with pea plants, hybridizing 28,000 plants in the 1860s and formulated the laws of inheritance. His inadvertent discoveries, which largely went unnoticed for decades, stimulated research to improve crop production through plant breeding and transformed the world of agriculture. Modern plant breeding has come a very long way since then and is currently a mixture of various disciplines, including applied genetics, molecular biology, cytology, physiology, chemistry and biometric statistics. It has even given rise to an entire technology, gene editing (CRISPR), which now enables farmers to tailor crops with tremendous precision so as to be more resilient.
In the beginning of 20th century, when Mendel’s laws came to be understood and widely accepted, hybrid breeding methods were successfully applied to maize cultivation. Botanists like William James Beal developed a hybrid corn that could bloom earlier and was hardier and agricultural companies all over the world, including HVA International, began using these hybrid crops in order to increase crop yields and nutritional content as well as improve resistance to environmental stressors.
Among the hybrid crops HVA used is the Tenera palm oil tree, which is a hybrid of the Dura and Pisifera breeds. Oil palm trees were already very high-yielding oleaginous crops but the Dura had thick-shelled kernels and the Pisifera had no shell at all, so by hybridizing them a thin shell was achieved, which resulted in 30% higher oil yield and currently yield up to 400% more oil than olive trees, making it the most sustainable of all oil crops.
Plant breeding reached a high point in the 1960s, when the legendary agronomist and plant scientist Norman Borlaug developed high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties in order to avert global famine. By introducing these varieties to developing countries, grain yields more than quadrupled and world food production doubled. Borlaug is credited with saving one billion people from starvation and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for warding off conflicts by increasing world food supply.
Thanks to Borlaug demonstrating the profound impact that high-yield hybrid crops can have, agriculture entered a new era, known as “the Green Revolution” and HVA began to transition from working solely on its own plantations to joint ventures, forming two subsidiaries: HVA-ENCO and HVA-HAI, helping design and manage projects for others. HVA specialized in designing large-scale projects with high-yield crops that helped make developing countries not only self-sufficient but even net exporters of food.
Skipping ahead 50 years, the CRISPR genome editing technique has become a worldwide phenomenon and its development recognized by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020, which was awarded to Professors Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna
Thanks to CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats, crops can be grown to handle temperatures and diseases better than ever before. In a time when climate change is disrupting weather and rainfall patterns, it is an invaluable tool that will surely help mitigate famine and conflict as the world population approaches the 10 billion mark.
Now that we find ourselves at the dawn of a 2nd Green Revolution, it is important that we think back and recognize the contributions that got us here, from Mendel and Borlaug to Charpentier and Doudna, and how their contributions to plant breeding and editing is helping feed billions more people than would have been possible.