Define germplasm in plant breeding

Romain Royer


Marketing Cooperator

November 18, 2022

5 min

In applied research, is there any asset more important than information?
Today let's talk about the most valuable knowledge in plant breeding: Germplasm !

Germplasm refers to the genetic material that is used to develop a new variety.
For plant breeders, germplasm is more than the thousands of seed bags in the cold room, more than the characteristics of the parents of their next variety:
It includes all the traits expressed by all cultivars over the years.
And when available, the environmental conditions when such trait has been observed.

Simply put, germplasm involves huge amounts of heterogeneous data, and relies on sensible processes related to many activities of the research department.

We are going to discuss the biggest concerns of plant breeders about germplasm:
How much and how detailed information is necessary?
Best practices to ensure the reliability of information?
What tools help researchers make the most of their germplasm?

germplasm genetic plant is wild conseration, crop species and diversity resources. Breeding varieties starts with collection of plants, seed crops storage conservation and cultivated genetic accessions.
Seed collections at IRRI: the physical side of germplasm

Germplasm at the heart of plant breeding

"The strongest assets of public research institutions tend to be their germplasm, variety assessment infrastructure and (in the stronger NARS) the capacity to conduct upstream research.” FAO, 2014².

We've said above that germplasm consists in genetic resources, composed of living material and information on its specificity and potential.
Here is why it matters much: This important source of genetic diversity contains some traits that may contribute to food security in the future. For instance, some cultivar are resistant to a potential crop disease epidemic, or adapted to specific environmental constraints. This becomes crucial for climate-smart plant breeding when weather changes³.

The living part of germplasm consists in a collection of seeds. The physical storage of germplasm seeds is constantly in evolution. It requires seed stock management to monitor warehouse inventories and replanting operations. A strong information system enables to manage efficiently these evolutions, with codification of identifiers, inventory and warehouse management tools.

The value of germplasm information depends on its qualification. A whole lot of heterogeneous information characterize every cultivar, either phenotype traits (yield, precocity…) or genotype data (pedigree, sequencing information, genomic maps…).

Here is an example : Plant breeders are often looking for correlations {pedigree x agronomic traits} and best new descendants to evaluate. They appreciate to visualize the pedigree of a selected hybrid, and compare its performances with those of this hybrid's "relatives". Such application becomes possible when the database stores all cultivars data in a standard way, and when the plant breeding software offers visualization tools such as graphs, raw data and statistics.

“Germplasm is our most important asset and the lifeblood of Pioneer”
Says Rick McConnell, Pioneer senior VP and R&D director ¹.
Germplasm genetic plant is wild genetic conservation of gene seeds improvement for national field low rice resistance. University samplefigure state is a high conservation development registration os material.
Material evaluation for germplasm qualification at CGIAR

Quality of germplasm information

Germplasm information can be aggregated for easier reading, but the less aggregated, the best it describes germplasm and the most valuable it is for breeders and their R&D department. For instance, it is valuable to know which traits (resistance, color, size…) characterize a cultivar, but even more accurate to know how it behaves on specific environmental conditions (climate, soil, production protocol…)⁴.

Then it is useful to compare its past performances with other cultivars, elite lines and testers. And even less aggregated is the raw data of all notations and all environmental data of the history of this material. The quality of germplasm qualification depends on the way data is collected, stored, aggregated and how it can be queried.

“Information is not knowledge”
Albert Einstein.
Germplasm genetic plant in the wild conservation crop species. Internal traits evaluation put in lines of genebanks with chickpea accession for collecting bank cultivars and relatives.
Germplasm characterization integrated in food applied research

Valorize and secure plant breeding knowledge

A plant breeding department is overall people running elaborate processes and taking complex decisions to create innovative products. Researchers have much to gain in collaborating efficiently: “One of the major success factors in R&D teams is that […] knowledge becomes a collective asset helping to fulfill the team mission"⁵.

Collaborative work lies upon structuring information and knowledge, for instance by using a common material and ontology codification, or by describing process methods.

Knowledge management benefits to know-how transfer, notably accelerating new co-worker integration and limiting the loss when a researcher leaves.

Defining a unified vocabulary enhances also all discussions within the team. At Doriane we have noticed that after using RnDExperience™ plant breeding software for a few months, breeding teams get used to the dictionary, and reckon they save time using “stock levels” to describe their materials and “protocols” for their processes!

“ One of the major success factors in R&D teams is that the knowledge acquired by the individuals in the team surpasses individual intelligence
Civelek, M. E.

Plant research departments have much to gain in enhancing their germplasm qualification and integrating most of their breeding and testing processes in a central research system.

Germplasm genetic plant in the wild conservation breeding seed storage crop resources varieties diversity. Gene seeds improvement resistance traits cultivars
Exploring germplasm in a plant breeding software

Centralize and standardize germplasm storage

Doriane delivers its expertise in IT and agronomy through an suite of software that integrates:

  • R&D processes management
  • Storage and traceability of all information
  • Field monitoring tools to support daily experimentation
  • Data analysis tools for decision-making assistance
  • Reporting tools to communicate results and share with partners

Unify and integrate information management in a plant breeding and testing software such as RnDExperience™ provides all actors of the plant research with tools to handle their work processes securely and efficiently.

It enables to work in real time, enhances the sharing of best practices, encourages collaboration, increases reactivity and helps taking decisions.

On top of its structure and tools, RnDExperience™ can be adjusted to fit new challenges of the R&D department. Plant breeders appreciate its potential of adaptation to modern plant breeding datasets such as the OMICs: genomic, metabolic, proteomic, transcriptomics, environomics and phenomics. Processing such information and integrating it to the database enriches the quality of germplasm and empowers future queries of germplasm information for the plant breeding challenges to come !

Sources :
¹- “Germplasm is our most important asset and the lifeblood of Pioneer.” Says Rick McConnell, Pioneer senior vice president and director of research in 1999 Wallace’s Farmer Vol. 124 N°1-8, Wallace.
²- “The strongest assets of public research institutions tend to be their germplasm, variety assessment infrastructure and (in the stronger NARS) the capacity to conduct upstream research.” The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO agriculture series, 2004, FAO.
³- “Interrelationships between the conservation of crop genetic resources and their sustainable use in plant breeding and as seed and propagating material. Genetic vulnerability has been described as “the condition that results when a widely planted crop is uniformly susceptible to a pest, pathogen or environmental hazard as a result of its genetic constitution, thereby creating a potential for widespread crop losses” (National Academy of Sciences, 1972, cited in FAO, 1996a).
⁴- “The market price of germplasm is not an appropriate indicator of the value, because it does not normally reflect in full all of the actual or potential kinds of benefits derivable from a genetic material: specifically, benefits from current use, benefit from future use options, and benefit from existence per se.” states Robert Eugene Evenson, professor emeritus of economics at Yales University in Agricultural values of Plant Genetic Resources, Evenson, R.E. and Gollin, D. and Santaniello, V., CABI Publishing Series, 1998, CAB International.
⁵- One of the major success factors in R&D teams is that the knowledge acquired by the individuals in the team surpasses individual intelligence and this knowledge becomes a collective asset helping to fulfill the team mission” (Grant, 1996; Moorman and Miner, 1998) in Civelek, M.E. and co., Key Factors of sustainable Firm Performance, 2015, Zea Books.  

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