TARLAKENYO (May 19, 2023) — During the beginning of summer, unconventional pollinators make their way across rice fields in Texas and Arkansas, in the United States, using drones.
The agile and compact helicopters fly at a low altitude, ensuring that their rotor movements disperse pollen from one row of plants to another.
This process greatly aids RiceTec, a plant breeding company, in producing seeds for rice varieties that are known for their high yield and resilience. Although this method of seed production is costly and intricate, the benefits it yields make it worthwhile.
The resulting plants from these seeds exhibit a remarkable strength and adaptability known as hybrid vigor.
The cultivation of hybrid varieties has significantly increased the crop yield of maize, sorghum, and other crops by as much as 50%, while also introducing valuable traits like improved drought tolerance. However, this breeding method is only practical for certain species.
Producing hybrid wheat or soybeans poses significant challenges. Even in species where it is feasible, the process is highly labor-intensive when successfully executed.
In the case of rice, seed companies face the initial challenge of developing a plant strain that is unable to self-pollinate.
Following this step, helicopters are utilized to introduce pollen from a second strain. This process needs to be repeated for each new batch of seed to prevent gene reshuffling and the loss of favorable traits that typically occur during regular sexual reproduction.
Plant breeders have long envisioned a more efficient and effective approach to creating hybrid seed. In nature, certain plant species reproduce clonally, meaning their embryos develop without the need for pollination—a process known as apomixis, derived from the Greek term meaning “away from mixing.”
If scientists could genetically engineer crops to reproduce through apomixis, the initial laborious process of generating the first hybrid generation would remain, but seed companies would be able to propagate hybrid offspring much more easily.