Mapping a plant’s ‘superfamily tree’ can build resilient crops amid climate crises

By building and analysing the ‘family tree’ of crops, researchers can help farmers combat plant diseases and withstand changing weather patterns. 

Growing up in Punjab, known as ‘the breadbasket of India’, Murdoch University researcher Dr Vanika Garg’s professional journey into the field of crop genomics was deeply intertwined with her heritage.

With agriculture the backbone of her region, Dr Garg developed an early appreciation of both the significance of farming and its impact on communities.

Her current research as a computational biologist is focussed the genomics of chickpea, wheat and horticultural crops – and she has co-authored a number of papers exploring the use of the super-pangenome.

By building and analysing the ‘family tree’ of each crop, Dr Garg’s research will help farmers and scientists to combat new diseases and withstand changing weather patterns.

Dr Garg said the traditional pangenome, a collection of DNA shared by all individuals within a species, acted as a ‘family album’, and the super-pangenome, which includes a distinctive profile of a crop’s genetics, including its wild relatives, provides crucial extra context.

The concept of the super-pangenome was first introduced in a paper co-authored by researchers, including Dr Garg, under the leadership of Murdoch University Professor Dr Rajeev Varshney in 2019.

“Imagine creating a ‘superfamily album’. Instead of just one family’s photos, you gather pictures from multiple families, your relatives, your neighbours and even friends from different cities,” Dr Garg said.

“This superfamily album gives you a much broader perspective on what families can look like and the variations in appearances, personalities and lifestyles.”

She said by studying and sometimes crossbreeding domesticated crops with wild relatives, farmers could introduce special features into their crops, making them stronger and more adaptable.

“When farmers or scientists are faced with challenges, like a new disease affecting crops or changing weather patterns due to climate change, they can look to these wild relatives for solutions,” Dr Garg said.

“In simple terms, crop wild relatives are like the tough and resourceful distant cousins in a family who can teach our regular crops a few survival tricks.”

Source:  Murdoch University


Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog