Maize Molecular Atlas: Climate change-responsive varieties for the future

The new Maize Molecular Atlas comprises an online resource of data, knowledge and tools to describe, explore and use the genetic diversity of more than 28,000 maize samples. It will help plant breeders and scientists respond to the challenges of new diseases, heat and drought stresses affecting crops.

Key data and tools to identify and use crop genetic resources are being linked in a powerful, emerging maize molecular atlas that provides new and easier ways to access valuable contents from the black box of maize genetic diversity.

Like a car navigation system that helps drivers to steer through a complex network of information, the Atlas synthesizes valuable physical information to reach a desired destination – in this case, the maize genetic regions associated with desirable traits and in the most appropriate germplasm.

Most Atlas information relates to maize landraces, ancestral varieties that farmers adapted to local environments over thousands of years and which represent the broadest range of native genetic diversity.

The Atlas combines genetic fingerprint data of 28,000 seed samples that form the entire maize collection in the germplasm bank at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), together with collection site geographic data for more than 19,000 landraces and wild relatives of maize and data from targeted phenotypic evaluations.

The system also features data collection and visualization software, search and statistical analysis tools and training links, allowing users to find landraces of interest online.

The data are interpreted against background knowledge on maize biodiversity generated by MasAgro Biodiversidad, the Mexican government’s contribution to the CIMMYT-led Seeds of Discovery project, which associates desirable agronomic traits to known regions in the maize genome.

Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) invited CIMMYT to present the Maize Molecular Atlas during the 13th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the Convention on Biological Diversity that took place in Cancún, Mexico, in December 2016.

More than 250 Mexican researchers and students have participated in workshops to learn how to use molecular atlas data and tools in their work to develop climate change-responsive maize varieties for the future.

Protecting maize and wheat genetic diversity across the globe

At its headquarters outside Mexico City, CIMMYT maintains a vast “seed library” holding the world’s most important collection of maize and wheat genetic diversity.

The diversity embodied in these seed collections, which number 180,000, includes original races of maize and wheat that were domesticated over millennia by farmers. The seed is conserved, studied and shared by CIMMYT with breeders, specialists and farmers worldwide. In 2016, 41 tons of wheat and maize seed were shipped to 100 countries.

For decades, CIMMYT maize and wheat breeders have drawn on this diversity for genes to strengthen the disease resistance and climate resilience of modern, improved varieties.

The CIMMYT genebank also safeguards and restores seed collections lost or threatened by conflicts. Genebank staff are working with the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) to preserve and genetically analyze ICARDA wheat seed collections that were relocated from Syria with the outbreak of civil war.

Under the Seeds of Discovery project, a joint initiative of CIMMYT and SAGARPA through the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) project, scientists have genetically analyzed approximately 90,000 CIMMYT maize and wheat seed collections from more than 100 countries and nearly 30,000 wheat and wheat wild relative samples from ICARDA.

This work was implemented by CIMMYT as part of the Seeds of Discovery project made possible by the generous support of Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food under the Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture (MasAgro) project, the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), and Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agriculture and Livestock Research.

Text: Ricardo Curiel, Katie Lutz

Contributors: Sarah Hearne, Jennifer Johnson, Kevin Pixley, Carolina Sansaloni

Photos: Alfonso Cortés, Bibiana Espinosa, CIMMYT archives

Graphics: Gerardo Mejía

Editors: Bianca Beks, G. Michael Listman, Julie Mollins, Geneviève Renard

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