It’s not easy being a plant. Drought, flooding, salt and low nutrient levels negatively affect plant growth and lower crop productivity. These environmental stresses have the greatest impact on our highly adapted domesticated crops while their wild plant relatives have evolved mechanisms to help them overcome these challenges. Understanding these mechanisms will enable cultivated crops to be grown in previously unsuitable habitats and in the face of changing climatic conditions, thus feeding a rapidly growing global population. Sunflowers are ideal for this project, as they are limited by environmental stresses but have wild counterparts adapted to a variety of extreme environments.
Dr. Loren H. Rieseberg of the University of British Columbia and John Burke of University of Georgia are leading an international team investigating why wild plants are more resistant to environmental stresses. The team is focusing on the sunflower, a $20 billion crop that is the only oilseed in the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s list of 25 priority food security crops because it is grown widely in developing countries. The project will identify and fully characterize the genetic basis of stress resistance in sunflowers and create resources that will enable partners from the public and private sectors to efficiently breed stressresistant, highyield cultivars. The team will also develop models to predict likely yields of the new cultivars in different soil and climate conditions across Canada and develop strategies to overcome barriers to R&D caused by international treaties on the use of plant genetic resources thus ensuring the maximum use of new plant materials developed from this project for growers in Canada and around the World.
The expanded sunflower production made possible in Canada by the new cultivars is expected to yield some $12 million USD annually within five years of the project’s end and up to $230 million USD annually after ten years. Worldwide, the impact will be substantial, as no other oilseed can maintain the stable yields across as wide a range of environmental conditions as that predicted for the new sunflower cultivars.