Seeds Without Sex

September 08, 1997

CSIRO research could make male plant parts in crops redundant, and dramatically lift grain production around the world.

The research program aims to develop plants which can produce seed without sex. It is a 15-year collaboration between CSIRO, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

"The normal process of pollen formation and transfer is very sensitive to a range of weather conditions - it cannot be too dry nor too windy and so forth. It is estimated that $400 million is lost in rice production alone around the world each year because of drought-related pollination failure," said Dr Abed Chaudhury, of CSIRO Plant Industry.

In a world-first discovery, CSIRO scientists have found a gene that allows Arabidopsis - a test plant used by scientists because of its rapid life cycle - to bypass the normal pollination process and begin seed formation. This is the crucial first step in developing plants which can produce seed without pollination.

The hunt is now on to find equivalent genes in commercial plants like rice - the world's biggest crop, and the staple diet for billions of people globally.

"In most crop plants, the male parts of the flower transfer pollen to the female parts, prompting the grain to develop," Dr Chaudhury said.

"But we are aiming to produce grain without the need for male plant parts."

Plants that do not require pollination for seed-set undergo an alternative, sexless process called apomixis. CSIRO scientists aim to identify the genes involved in apomixis and then use them in pollination-reliant crop species.

"If we can produce commercial crop plants that don't need pollination, the benefits would be enormous in terms of higher yields and more efficient production methods," Dr Chaudhury said.

ACIAR have estimated that the minimum likely benefits from the research will be $7 billion to $8.6 billion worldwide with the benefit to Australia estimated at $16 million to $19 million.

CSIRO Australia

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