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Plant Breeding

As a part of agriculture, man started rearing plants and animals to meet his requirements. This is when humans started to learn how to influence the process of natural evolution so as to breed plant or animals.

Progeny

Slowly and gradually, this process of expedited evolution, through selection and cultivation of plants, acquired the form of a routine endeavor—what we today call ‘plant breeding’. In this, heredity, which refers to the passage of various characteristic features from the main plant (the parent) to the plantlets (the progeny), plays an important role. The effects of heredity had been apparent to early man and he had taken advantage of them ever since the advent of agriculture.

Various methods have evolved in plant breeding. One of the most important methods is that of selection.

Early man

The ability to choose gave birth to the idea of selection. This is the most primitive and by and large the most successful method of plant breeding. Selection as a part of plant breeding started with the domestication of plants by early man. Domestication refers to the process of bringing wild species under human management. Not all selection over the years have been human influenced—many of the important crop species have resulted from the natural selection process, which is an integral part of evolution. As human knowledge of agriculture grew, man started shuffling crop species from one geographical terrain to another, thus making new introductions.

The first prerequisite of selection is the availability of variability, i.e. different types of forms. After a variable population is recognized, individuals that are the best performers for the desired feature, say fruit size in the case of tomatoes, are chosen and the rest of the population is discarded or rejected. The progeny of the selected individuals is grown further and again screened for the desired feature. This process is repeated until a uniform plant population is attained which has the best-desired characters. Eventually, a desired uniform crop variety is produced by this successive selection followed by multiplication of the selected individuals.

Selecting higher yielding plant varieties is no easy task. Various tools have been devised to deal with plant selection. In fact, the birth of genetics as an independent discipline in plant science started with some clever mathematical computations. This brainchild of yesteryears is now an important branch of genetics known as biometrics. Biometrics is defined as the application of statistics in biology. This has contributed greatly to the development of various systems based on which selection of plants is done. There are various methods by which plant selection is carried out, namely selection for uniform plants, known as pure line selection; selection from field-grown plants, known as bulk selection or mass selection; and selection from a well-documented list of parentage, commonly known as the pedigree system. Overall, the hallmark of selection lies in human ability to chose the best plants from a cluster of many.


Hybridization

In traditional terms, hybridization refers to the union of the male and the female gamete to produce a zygote. In plant science, hybridization also refers to the crossing or mating of two plants. The story of scientific hybridization of crop plants started with J G Kolreuter, who in 1761 published his work on the scientific bases of hybridization. Since then, hybridization followed by selection, has been the major tool of plant breeding.

In his quest to find more variability, man started experimenting with hybridization of plants so as to achieve the perfect plant type. This process was actually the beginning of expedited evolution since it led to the formation of new plant types artificially or due to human intervention at a much faster pace than it would have happened in nature. For example, the bread wheat that we eat today has taken about 500 years to evolve to its present form through human intervention. This form of wheat would have taken thousands of years to evolve had it been left to the natural evolution process.

Ways in which hybridization is used

Some of the ways in which hybridization has been exploited in breeding crop plants are given below

bullet.gif (62 bytes)Combination breeding: The main aim of combination breeding is to transfer one or more characters into a single variety or plant type from many others. For this, an existing plant variety may be used as the recipient parent while many other crop varieties or wild relatives may contribute as donor parents. The most commonly used method to achieve this goal is known as the backcross method. The plant type in which the character or the trait is being transferred is known as the recipient parent and the other as the donor parent. For this, the two plants are mated or crossed and the progeny is screened for the desired trait. The progeny plants possessing the desired trait are then selected and crossed back to the recipient parent. This process is repeated until the desired plant type having all the characteristics of the recipient in addition to the trait being transferred is finally obtained. This exercise is known as backcrossing. Backcrossing involves both hybridization and selection.

bullet.gif (62 bytes)Hybrid varieties: Plant scientists exploit the characteristic feature of better yielding ‘hybrids’ in plants. Hybrid vigour, or hetrosis as it is scientifically known, exploits the fact that some offspring from the progeny of a cross between two known parents would be better than the parents themselves. Many hybrid varieties of several crop species are being grown all over the world today. An example of this is the hybrid tomatoes that we eat commonly. The philosophy of hybridization has been extended from ‘within the same species or genera (the same type of plants)’ to ‘different species or genera (totally different plants)’. This is known as wide or distant hybridization. Wide hybridization has helped breeders to break what is known as the species or genera barrier for gene transfer, i.e. it has helped breeders to transfer beneficial characteristics from wild and weedy plants to the cultivated crop species.

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