New International partnership to combat weeds

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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.

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