University of Georgia scientists in collaboration with researchers from other universities around the world recently published the first sunflower genome research in the journal "Nature."
The sunflower genome was of interest to the team because sunflowers are a major source of vegetable oil worldwide, and they have shown the ability to adapt to diverse climates.
“[Sunflowers] have a lot of natural variation in wild populations and in related wild species that allow it to deal with agriculturally relevant stresses,” said Dr. John Burke, a researcher on the team and professor in the UGA Department of Plant Biology. “We think that there is potential to exploit this wild germplasm to further improve sunflower to deal with these stresses if we can get down to a mechanistic level and figure out how it is that they’re dealing with these stresses.”
According to Burke sequencing the sunflower genome took over a decade of work.
Burke said sunflowers are particularly difficult to sequence because their genome is almost 30 percent larger than the human genome and the sunflower genome is highly repetitive, which makes it like a giant puzzle in which many of the pieces look the exact same.
“One of the things that allowed us to get around the problem of assembling this highly repetitive genome was technological advances,” Burke said. “We started this project like 10 years ago, and technology has advanced to the point now that we’re able to generate larger ‘puzzle pieces’ which makes the process of piecing everything together easier.”
With the genome sequence now available for research, Burke and the other researchers are moving onto the second phase of the project.
The researchers will start identifying the specific genes in sunflowers which make them more resilient to environmental stresses like drought, salient soils and low nutrient availability. Then sunflowers can be better bred to adapt to the needs of the environment.
“What we’re talking about doing here is identifying natural variation, finding forms of genes that are already present within the cultivated sunflower gene pool or present in closely related species that we can, “ Burke said. “Therefore, by making traditional crosses between plants, we can possibly move alleles into cultivated materials from wild species that are already adapted to these stresses out in nature.”
Burke said that as the world’s population continues to grow, land used for agriculture is likely to be of lesser quality. Therefore, being able to breed the most resilient traits into sunflowers will become more important in the future.
“Where we are farming now are typically some of our most fertile lands, but as population grows and we need to expand agriculture into new areas, we’re going to be pushing agriculture onto increasingly marginal lands,” Burke said.
Burke said the ultimate goal is to have sunflowers that can survive with fewer resource intensive interventions like fertilizer.
“If we can develop plants that can do more with less and maintain a respectable level of land productivity, those kinds of things ensure agricultural productivity in the future,” Burke said.