How to distill the essence of FIGS – after all it is an apparently complex subject?

The method uses detailed information about the environment from which plant genetic samples were collected to precisely predict where plant traits – such as disease resistance or adaptability to extreme weather conditions – are likely to evolve. Accessions from these areas have a higher probability to contain the traits and genes of interest. From this we assemble smaller subsets of genetic material that have a high potential to have the plant traits that breeders need to develop robust new varieties.

What is wrong with current, commonly-used methods?

Using current methods and funding levels it is virtually impossible to screen all available plant genetic materials to identify characteristics carrying the genetic variation required for new crop breeding improvements and breakthroughs. Most of the other methods are not focused on targeted traits, rather on large diversity base. This is a major constraint to increasing crop productivity, reducing poverty, and ensuring food security.

How big is the challenge? 

To breed new crop varieties with resistance and new characteristics requires access to novel genes that possess the desired trait. These novel genes are buried in plant genetic resource collections like those conserved within CGIAR genebanks and the many national genebanks worldwide. With over 7 million genetic resources available, finding candidate samples with the desirable trait is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.

How to characterize the FIGS appeal? 

It’s a technique that formalizes what a good genebank manager/curator might do intuitively. FIGS represents the first real conduit between breeders and the genebank world. I have to say that breeders are very enthusiastic.

Why is it an advance on core collections? 

Core collections are too generalized. In a way they are counter-intuitive – they try to maximize generalized measures of diversity in as few a number of accessions as possible. Breeders need specific traits. We have analyzed requests by breeders for germplasm from the ICARDA genebank. About 90% of them are for diseases or other specific traits. In developing FIGS we are asserting that core collections don’t necessarily capture the ‘rare genes’ required by breeders.

How confident can we be that FIGS is a breakthrough?     

FIGS is a ‘no brainer’ – it is a targeted revolution for crop genetics.