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Scientist Searching Genes in Self-cloning Plants
A tool that could potentially improve the efficiency, yields and quality of agriculture around the world has remained elusive to commercial farming. But a University of Georgia researcher in Tifton, Ga., is trying to change that.

In her lab at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station, Peggy Ozias-Akins searches for the genetic information that causes apomixis, a strange trait that allows a plant to produce a seed identical to itself: a natural clone.

The trait occurs naturally in many plants. But it's rare in domesticated plants. It doesn't happen in any major food crops, said Ozias-Akins, a horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"Apomixis is not a common trait but is more frequently observed in the grass and sunflower families," she said.

Faster, Better Crop Varieties

But if this asexual trait can be introduced to the genetic makeup of crops, she said, scientists could develop better, higher-yielding varieties faster.

Conventional breeding practices develop hybrids with desirable crop traits. But because these hybrids reproduce sexually, the good traits can change or disappear over time. Through apomixis, a high-yielding corn plant could reproduce unchanged for many generations and never compromise the yield.

Ozias-Akins hopes to get to the root of apomixis by looking at the genetic makeup of a close wild relative of pearl millet.

Pearl millet is grown mainly for cattle feed. But the grain is used in human diets in parts of the world. Pearl millet doesn't have the apomixis trait itself. But its wild cousin does.

Hard to Find

Exploring the genome is painstakingly hard, she said. The area believed to contain the information for apomixis is especially tough.

"That particular area is a complicated region," she said. "And we're still not sure if it's one or more genes that cause this trait."

Technology is helping solve the problem. Normal breeding could result in the quicker development of the apomixis trait in certain crops, such as pearl millet. But gene-mapping and sequencing will allow a more widespread adaptation to agriculture, she said.

If she can find the exact gene or genes, the technology could then be transferred into other crops much quicker than with conventional breeding.

More Questions

There is concern that using technology to spread apomixis around could cause unnatural uniformity in the variety of plants. Some argue this could allow a disease or insect to wipe out entire crop populations.

Ozias-Akins understands the concern. But she said apomixis, because of the ease in creating hybrids, could actually increase the number of varieties available for planting.

Exactly when apomixis technology would be available for farmers is not certain. "It seems like with every question we answer, 10 more come up," she said.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Ozias-Akins a grant for $1.1 million to support her research into apomixis.

The equipment and techniques for looking into the genome have evolved since she began her research in the mid-1980s. Ozias-Akins believes time is on her side. Every day she hones the search for this genetic trait.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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