Created in 2017, the Plant Breeding Chair has two objectives:
- to train field breeders capable of integrating biotechnologies and market understanding into their profession through a master's degree in plant breeding.
- to develop research axes on the following themes :
- the integration of new technologies to plant improvement ;
- the study from the epistemological and sociological point of view of the acceptability of innovation in plant breeding.
An Erasmus Mundus Master in Plant Breeding
In June 2017, the European Community granted the Erasmus Mundus label to the Master Plant Breeding, under the name emPLANT, Erasmus Mundus Program in Plant Breeding, recognizing the originality and excellence of the proposed program.
Today it is the only Erasmus Mundus master dedicated to plant breeding.
It was built in partnership with 4 universities: SLU in Sweden, the University of Helsinki in Finland, the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain and the University of Ege in Turkey.
Thanks to this international recognition, 316 candidates from all over the world have applied for this master's degree. Among the 32 students selected, 22 have joined UniLaSalle in September 2019.
The Plant Breeding Chair has started a program focused on the study and understanding of the functioning of contrasting cultivars through growth and develoment models.
Today, thanks to the availability of climatological data, we are able to better predict the contrasting reactions of genotypes to the various climatic scenarios described by the crop models and thus significantly impact genetic progress.
The societal side aims to study varietal innovation and specifically the integration of biotechnologies upstream and during selection, considering innovation as a sociotechnical process.
Objectives of the research program
The Chair's project focuses on three levels of crop plant interaction:
- the plant's reaction to stress, whether biotic or abiotic;
- the adaptation of the plant to the environment as a whole and all its variability;
- society's perception of the improved and selected plant.
The "Plant-Stress Interaction" (IPSt) program is interested in the reaction mechanisms of plants subjected to biotic and a biotic stresses and more specifically in the quantitative resistance mechanisms considered to be more sustainable.
Concerning biotic stresses, the Chair is well positioned on the simulation of plant defences, especially against cereal diseases such a septoria.
Concerning abiotic stresses, the Chair is particularly interested in the mechanisms of defence against cold and water stress by studying gene expression under controlled conditions.
Several projects have been carried out on the efficacy of beneficial microorganisms (e.g Plant-Growth-Promoting-Bacteria = PGPB) and elicitors (of plant origin, microorganisms and industrial by-products) which have improved the varietal resistance of plants to these stresses. Several doctoral and master theses have been carried out in the laboratory and in the field on these themes and thus allow to better envisage the conditions of practical applications in culture of these defense stimulators.
Recently, we have identified some QTLs that could be used as genetic markers in breeding for varietal resistance.
The "Plant-Environment Interaction" (IPEn) program of the Plant Improvement Chair is part of the interactions between seed companies and research with a double objective:
- to develop tools to increase genetic progress in a more sustainable way,
- diversify the supply of cultivated plants.
A first objective is to provide tools and methods enabling seed sector stakeholders to better understand, thanks to ecophysiological models, the adaptation of varieties to their environment in order, on the one hand, to better meet the needs of farmers and consumers and, on the other hand, to develop more effective plant improvement strategies to anticipate future climate changes.
A second objective is in line with the growing need for plant-based protein resources: the Chair aims to test the adaptation of new species which may in the future offer interesting opportunities both in terms of nutritional quality and crop diversification, thus enabling seed companies to develop new and varied offers.
Note: the objective is indeed to take into account the environment in all its characteristics and associated cultural practices as they are and to adapt crops to them and not the other way around.
Concept and Methods
The breeder is confronted with genotype/environment interactions. These interactions are an obstacle to genetic progress. The solution that breeders have adopted in the past was to multiply and diversify the testing sites and years of testing. While this strategy has led to a significant improvement in the selection process and the stability of variety performance, it is very resource-intensive and rather imperfect because variations in performance are always observable, even at advanced stages of selection, and it does not allow predictive value to be given to data from trials already carried out. Today, it is possible to improve this process to make it predictable and more efficient.
Ecophysiological models such as DSSAT, APSIM, STICS allow a better and more precise understanding of the interactions of varieties with their growing environment. Very little used in plant breeding in the past, they are now able to take into account genetic aspects and allow a better interpretation of data from genome characterization. On the other hand, the accessibility to key climatic data necessary for the models, the generalization of meteorological stations among experimenters, and the characterization of agricultural soils on an increasingly fine scale open perspectives concerning the fine characterization of the environment.
This understanding can, on the one hand, explain the performance of cultivars and thus better apprehend their adaptation and, on the other hand, develop much more relevant improvement strategies generating a more regular genetic progress. In the case of stagnation in genetic progress, these models are capable of identifying the origins of this stagnation and thus allow the reconfiguration of selection programs in the right direction.
However, in order to make these concepts concrete and routinely usable in breeding, it is necessary to design an integrated system with high-performance analysis tools that can be transferred to breeders. To do this, we are working to validate key steps in this process.
First of all, it is necessary to adapt the ecophysiological model for its use in an agro-climatic context defined for a given crop. We are working on methods that make this process relatively simple and fast. Then, the data from these models must be analyzed with the most appropriate statistical tools in order to identify the covariates explaining the performance of the varieties and thus determine the environmental typologies generating interaction in these varieties. We have already set up certain tools so that they can be used routinely by the profession. Finally, today, we are working with tools derived from artificial intelligence such as neural networks to optimize methods for classifying environments with more than promising results.
The research program "Plant-Society Interaction" (IPSo) of the Plant Improvement Chair is integrated upstream and downstream of the themes Plant/Stress and Plant/Environment.
Indeed, the aim is to return to the sources of varietal selection (concept of heterosis, mutagenesis, selection criteria) in order to show its importance in history in general and in the history of science in particular; and downstream to highlight the different means used today in plant breeding (such as Big Data, modeling, genotyping/phenotyping/envirotyping), other than the modification of genes by cis- or transgenesis, which seem to constitute a blocking element at the political and societal level. The new techniques of genomic editing, which come under the heading of cisgenesis, appear in fact to be yet another promise of evolution on demand, which we do not know if it can be kept, but which we know that certain political organizations will do everything possible to ensure that it is neither kept nor tenable.
Our postulate is indeed that thinking about the question of the social and technical integration of plant breeding in terms of social acceptability is a theoretical and practical dead end, and that it is more relevant to focus attention on the work of plant breeding and breeders themselves.
The major objective of this program is therefore to restore the nobility of the breeder's profession. In other words, it is a question of reconciling breeders with themselves and with society.
The research program "Plant-Society Interaction" has two major axes:
- The first axis deals with the historical-epistemological aspects of selection and varietal improvement. The aim is to write an epistemological history of plant breeding that is oriented not towards the economic, political and social factors of this history, but rather towards the strictly scientific factors. The link between the history of plant breeding and the history of genetics and biology in general, and the mutual contributions and enrichment, will be particularly scrutinized. To this historical aspect is added a conceptual aspect: it is a question of examining from an epistemological point of view a certain number of key concepts of selection such as those of hybridization, crossing and heterosis, mutagenesis, transgenesis and cisgenesis, and genomic editing. This work is essentially based on the analysis of historical documents (articles, archives, books, etc...) and aims to make varietal selection an important topic at the academic level, in the specific field of history and philosophy of science.
- The second axis deals with the profession of plant breeding as it is currently practiced, both in terms of practices and values. The tools used are more fieldwork with the use of ethnographic and sociological methods, socio-economic surveys, interviews with breeders, and the perception of this profession by the general public. The objective is the publication of an academic work on the profession of breeder within a maximum period of five years.
This research program will have immediate repercussions in terms of communications (continuing education modules, conferences, brochures) for seed companies as well as decision-makers and the general public.
The Plant Breeding Chair is supported by:
- BASF Nunhems
- Florimond Desprez
- Gautier Semences
- KWS Momont
- Limagrain Europe
- Sakata Vegetables Europe