Crop science research today is top-heavy with work on just 3 species: wheat, maize and rice. However, advances in knowledge on these 3 crops will neither be enough to meet the food needs of the exploding global population, nor to answer the full range of fundamental questions in plant science.
Our ancestors had the right idea. For thousands of years, people cultivated a wide range of domesticated plants, choosing those best suited to their diverse and often harsh environments. Many of these neglected crops can be grown with much lower resource input than the major cereals. Researchers and the food industry are waking up to the potential of these crops for sustainable agriculture and food products with a range of nutritional benefits.
The race is on for fundamental genetic and physiological research on these species to catch up with the ‘big three’. The power of genome sequencing technologies is giving neglected crops a helping hand. Foxtail millet, a staple cereal in poorer parts of China and South Asia, has recently had its complete genome sequenced: as a diploid, inbreeding, C4 plant, it’s an attractive model system for a number of closely-related bioenergy crops. Its carbohydrate also has a low glycaemic index, and as such foxtail millet-based products are being developed by the multinational firm Unilever for the South Asian market, where secondary diabetes is on the rise.
Agronomic development of crops such as foxtail millet demands knowledge of the genetic control of key adaptive traits, including flowering time response to environmental signals, and of the variation for these traits already present in the crop genepool. This contemporary challenge resonates with the deep past: the global spread of farming societies some 5,000 years ago was constrained by the ability of their staple crops to adapt to environments distinct from those of their homelands. Geneticists and archaeologists at the University of Cambridge are working together on the project ‘Food Globalisation in Prehistory’ to understand how the evolution of environmental adaptations in crops shaped the development of human history.
Linked to this, we are currently inviting applications for a 4-year PhD studentship to investigate the genetic control of flowering in foxtail millet. Full funding is available from a BBSRC Industrial CASE studentship, in partnership with Unilever.
Full details and application instructions can be found at: