Arabidopsis thaliana is the reference species for modern plant breeding and genetic conservation of leafy vegetables, seed crops and even trees (Holub 2008, Eur. J. Plant Pathol 122:91-109).
Lab-based research has provided a vast catalogue of molecularly characterized and informative genes that crop scientists can use as templates to identify analogous genes in crop species or directly via genetic engineering. Breeders in turn can tap this DNA-based knowledge and the new biological resources to improve crops using marker-assisted selection, especially for applications in crop production where water availability, nutrition and weed/pest/pathogen levels can be managed within affordable limits.
Deep genome-wide knowledge of natural variation in A. thaliana will also provide an important reference for ex situ conservation of biodiversity in other species. However, further ecological genetics will be vital to understand and predict a plant population’s ability to adapt in variable habitats across the geographic range of a species. Breeders refer to this local adaptation as “genotype x environment interactions.”
Genetic knowledge will be increasingly useful to sustain productivity of low input agriculture in changeable environments. Landraces may, for example, already contain environmentally resilient traits, which can readily be lost through generations of breeding for other traits unless selectable molecular markers (ideally designed from the essential genes) are used to maintain the valued traits in new cultivars.
Natural variation in the key proteins that govern plant-microbe interactions provides compelling case studies for addressing this important challenge, to pursue molecular genetics research of local adaptation in the real world of changeable environments. We are pursuing this challenge using state-of-the-art genomic approaches, “open-air” laboratories for recurring A. thaliana in natural UK habitat, public engagement, and comparative research with US & European partners.
Partners: Allaby (Warwick), Bergelson & Borevitz (U-Chicago), Cevik (Warwick), Dangl (UNC-Chapel Hill), Grant (U-Exeter), Mable (U-Glasgow), Neve (Warwick), Rose (Düsseldorf), Mitchell-Olds (Duke), Tör (U-Worcester), Weigel (U-Tübingen), Williams (Fastplants), Young (ADAS UK).
Xanthomonas black rot: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/lifesci/people/jvicente/blackrot/
Xanthomonas leaf spot: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/lifesci/people/jvicente/leafspotdisease/