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Thompson, A.E. 1990. Breeding new industrial crops. p. 100-103. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Breeding New Industrial Crops

Anson E. Thompson

I will specifically address the area of breeding new industrial crops within the framework of genetic enhancement and plant breeding. The improvement of a new industrial crop is not appreciably different from enhancement and breeding of conventional food, feed or fiber crops. The major difference is that the plant breeder often starts with a different, and frequently unique or exotic germplasm base from which to develop a plant that produces significant yields of relatively high valued industrial feedstocks and/or products. These products may take various forms such as fibers, rubber, resins, waxes, gums, pharmaceuticals, biologically active materials, essential oils, and other oils with unique fatty acids.

The basic breeding and genetic methods utilized in the development of usable cultivars of a new industrial crop are essentially the same as for conventional crops. One differing aspect is that the breeder is often totally unfamiliar with the species, the germplasm, and potential end products. In most instances, this necessitates a very thorough study and literature review, and familiarization with all aspects of the breeding and developmental processes to a much greater extent than is usual when working with a conventional crop. In many instances pertinent literature may not be available except for some obscure taxonomic treatise or reference to an analysis in some chemical journal. Interestingly, some good information is frequently unearthed from obscure, often foreign journals. One plus for the new crop researcher is that almost anything you discover is of interest and may well merit publication—a real advantage in these times of performance standards, tenure, and the paper chase.

Since 1983, I have been involved with genetic enhancement and the breeding of three potentially new industrial crops. Two of the three, guayule for natural rubber and resin production, and lesquerella for production of hydroxy fatty acids were discussed in my paper entitled "Arid-Land Industrial Crops" presented in the "Oilseed and Industrial Crops" session of this symposium. The third crop, cuphea for production of lauric acid and other medium-chain fatty acids was covered by Dr. Steven J. Knapp in his paper entitled "Temperate Industrial Crops" in the same session. From this background of experience I have observed that the development of a new crop, or more specifically a new industrial crop, is closely related to and a natural extension of the plant germplasm research and development system, which is depicted in Fig. 1 (Thompson 1985).

The total system of new crops research and development is composed of five major components or activities. The steps proceed in an essentially sequential fashion, but they are not discrete, and varying amounts of overlap may occur among them. The first three phases involve three major activities of the germplasm system—collection, evaluation, and enhancement and development. The fourth major activity involves the utilization of germplasm in cultivar development, which is intimately involved with agronomic/horticultural evaluation, and the development of appropriate cultural and management systems. The last, but not least, involves an array of activities associated with full scale commercialization. Types of activities and inputs of the various scientific disciplines and industrial components are indicated within each of the five areas of the total system. It is clear that the plant breeder/geneticist is a key figure in the developmental process. Much has been said about the role of a "crop champion" in this conference as well as in the CAST Report (Knowles et al. 1984) and other publications. New crop breeders, because of their unique role in the total process, frequently must provide the overall coordination, and manage and effectively utilize all available resources and appropriate methods to see that the developmental process moves forward.

Each new crop is likely to have its own, unique developmental pattern. The amount of time and resources required and devoted to the various phases will vary depending upon numerous factors. Three major factors that influence the timing and pattern of development of a new crop is whether it is developed by (1) domesticating a wild species, (2) adapting an existing crop from another area, or (3) making genetic changes in an established crop so that a new commodity is produced. In addition, there are other important factors that determine the strategy and methods employed in the developmental process. These include the availability nature, and adaptation of germplasm resources for the species; the extent of previously conducted research and development on the targeted crop species; the existence of usable and appropriate technology for evaluation, selection, and breeding for the products and coproducts sought; the need and urgency for completion of the developmental process; and the potential economic impact, which is the ultimate driving force of the process.

A plant breeder must be flexible in the approach to breeding a new crop where much is unknown. The breeder must be innovative and able to shift gears rapidly to meet the opportunities and constraints as they are encountered. In 1983, I transferred from the National Program Staff of USDA/ARS in Beltsville, Maryland, to Phoenix, Arizona, to set up a coordinated research program to develop cuphea as a new industrial oilseed crop. This was the beginning of a unique, three-way funded project at Oregon State University involving USDA/ARS and interested member companies of the Soap and Detergent Association. I very shortly found that I could not do an effective breeding job at this location since all species in the working germplasm collection exhibited poor adaptation and failed to produce seed under the high ambient temperatures experienced in Arizona during much of the growing season. It was possible to produce seed in evaporatively cooled greenhouses, but our facilities were very limited and inadequate to the task of germplasm maintenance and increase that is so essential to the total program. To solve this problem the germplasm collection was transferred in 1986 to the North Central Plant Introduction Station at Ames, Iowa. Dr. William W. Roath assumed responsibility for national coordination of the program, and for germplasm increase, maintenance, storage and distribution along with his new USDA/ARS activities on cuphea germplasm evaluation, enhancement and breeding in Iowa.

I had to make the necessary adjustment in my research approach and then concentrated on germplasm enhancement through the use of interspecific hybridization. This program was developed cooperatively with Dr. Dennis T. Ray and Dr. Allen C. Gathman at the University of Arizona at Tucson, with special emphasis on cytogenetics. Dr. Gathman has continued his interest at Southeast Missouri State University at Cape Girardeau. The results of this program have been documented in several publications (Gathman and Ray 1987, Ray et al. 1988, 1989, Thompson 1985, 1989, Thompson and Kleiman 1988). The major research effort on cultivar development and agronomic/horticultural evaluation is now concentrated in Oregon, Iowa, and at Tifton, Georgia under the direction of Dr. Casmir A. Jaworski of USDA/ARS. Additional research on oil extraction and utilization is being cooperatively conducted at the USDA/ARS Northern Regional Research Center, Peoria, Illinois, under Dr. Robert Kleiman's direction.

My interest in lesquerella as a new domestic industrial oilseed crop for hydroxy fatty acid production developed shortly after transferring to Phoenix in 1983. This lead to the assemblage of a working germplasm collection of 90 accessions of 23 Lesquerella species. These were evaluated for agronomic and yield potential, and research was concentrated on one species, L. fendleri, that had arid-land adaptation and the highest commercialization potential (Thompson 1985,1988, Thompson and Dierig 1988, Thompson et al. 1989). Research on lesquerella as a potential replacement of imported castor oil, a strategic material, has been conducted on a "shoe string" budget. To me, it is probably one of the most promising new industrial oilseed crops for commercialization in the next few years, and is recently receiving justified attention (Sent 1988). The Office of Agricultural Industrial Materials of USDA Cooperative State Research Service-Special Projects and Programs Systems has recently shown interest and is underwriting a full-scale assessment of the commercialization potential of lesquerella. This involves representatives of the OAIM, USDA/ARS, University of Missouri, and industry. This assessment will involve modification and development of new methodology for evaluating the production, processing, marketing and consumption components of the total system. This information will be used to identify opportunities and constraints to commercialization, and the necessary R & D and projected funding levels needed for advancement. We hope that the methods developed and used in this exercise will be useful and applicable to other potentially new industrial crops.

Little did I know when I took my statistics and experimental design courses in the late 1940s under Dr. Walter T. Faderer at Cornell University that I would one day be conducting breeding and genetic research on guayule, the potentially new domestic source of natural rubber. Dr. Faderer was involved in research on the Emergency Rubber Project during World War II, and used many examples in his courses from his guayule research. In the early 1980s, when research on guayule was being resurrected, I was on the USDA/ARS National Program Staff, and recall trying to get a new budget package developed to fund a new Research Geneticist position in ARS to lead the guayule program. The USDA/ARS became involved at this time, chiefly in cultural and water management research. Breeding efforts were primarily centered at the University of Arizona at Tucson and the University of California at Riverside and the Shafter Field Station. It wasn't until 1985 that I was approached to initiate and develop an ARS guayule germplasm development program at Phoenix that would be closely integrated with and complement the two breeding and genetic programs in Arizona and California. We believe this program has been very successful and has made considerable progress in the past three years (Thompson and Ray 1988, Thompson et al. 1988). The research activities of this program, unlike cuphea and lesquerella, fully encompasses the total system outlined in Fig. 1. The breeding component is a key element in the progress being made and has been documented in a recent chapter entitled "Breeding Guayule" in Volume 6 of Plant Breeding Reviews (Thompson and Ray 1988).

I have always been excited about plant breeding and genetics and the potential it has for progress, and have devoted most of my career research efforts to this field. I am now convinced that breeding and developing new crops has even more challenge, interest, and opportunity. I strongly recommend this way of life to any young scientist who likes to live dangerously, and who wants or needs a challenge to make a real, lasting contribution.


Fig. 1. A generalized system for new crop research and development (from Thompson 1985).

Last update August 26, 1997 by aw