Every farmer and gardener knows that weeds are a constant, formidable foe of successful plant production. Across the globe, weed management demands billions of pounds in annual herbicidal treatments, or soil-damaging tillage of fields so crops can grow.
Now an international group of scientists and industry professionals, including Rothamsted Research, have launched an ambitious new project aimed at improved management of the most intractable species of weeds in the world.
Led by Colorado State University (CSU), The International Weed Genomics Consortium comprises 17 academic partners across seven countries and will develop genomic tools that fundamentally advance humanity’s approach to weeds and crops. The $3 million (GBP£2.2m) consortium is supported by $1.5 million (GBP £1m) in industry sponsorships and matching funds from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), a research and funding organization established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Large-scale weed control is usually accomplished by spraying herbicides, but weeds can adapt and evolve resistance to such treatments. This is expensive for farmers, forcing increased use of unsustainable practices like soil tillage or even larger quantities or mixtures of herbicides. As novel, non-chemical means to control weeds are sought, it is increasingly important to understand the genetic variation underpinning the traits that allow weeds to thrive and persist in agricultural environments
“It is clear that weeds cause significantly damage, reducing crop yields and increasing agricultural costs, but our understanding of their biology, particularly their genetics, is so much less than what we have for the crops in which they grow.” said Rothamsted’s Dana Macgregor, a weed molecular biologist and a leading researcher on the project.
“When talking about weeds, we can’t simply just transfer knowledge from better understood plants because the natural and anthropogenic selection pressures that drive weed evolution are very different than those acting on model, crop, or wild plant species. So the IWGC will take that important first step in generating knowledge about weed genomes, and with that knowledge comes an ability to understand why it is there and what it does.”
The planned whole-genome approach is a long time coming, according to project director Todd Gaines, associate professor of molecular weed science in CSU’s Department of Agricultural Biology.
“When you think about weeds, what makes them great is they are adapted to the harshest situations,” Gaines said. “They are the most cold-tolerant, the most salt-tolerant, the most heat-tolerant.”
The consortium is now finalizing a list of 10 weed species for which they will sequence complete genomes. Among them are annual ryegrass ( Lolium rigidum), which is especially problematic in Mediterranean climates like southern Australia, southern Europe and California; and tall fleabane (Conyza sumatrensis), which poses major issues in South America.
In addition to the genomes, the team will create user-friendly genome analytical tools and training, particularly to serve early-career weed scientists.
As a key component of the partnership, agricultural biotechnology company KeyGene will develop a tool based on the company’s interactive genomics data management and visualization system, called CropPedia®. The cloud-based tool will enable analysis of multiple genomes and access to many users at once, giving all partners the latest information in one place.
The genomics consortium will complete the 10 weed genomes within three years, in close partnership with sponsoring company Corteva Agriscience, which will provide the expertise and resources for gold-standard genome assemblies. Corresponding annotations of these assemblies will be led by partners at Michigan State University.
Results and information will be shared via annual conferences made possible by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture funding. The first conference is slated for 22-24 September 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri, with in-person and virtual options.
Founding industry sponsors of the International Weed Genomics Consortium are Bayer CropScience, BASF, Corteva Agriscience, Syngenta and CropLife International. Academic partners are CSU, Clemson University, Auburn University, University of Illinois, Oregon State University, Michigan State University, University of California-Davis, North Carolina A&T, University of Adelaide, University of Western Australia, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, Zhejiang University, Kyoto University, Seoul National University, Agricultural Research Organization (Israel), and Rothamsted Research.
ABOUT ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking
discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern
agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted 1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid
from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.