Genetic breakthrough on tropical grass could help develop climate-friendly cattle farms

The discovery of genes responsible for asexual reproduction in a tropical grass may reduce negative impacts of cattle farming. The grass captures carbon, reduces gas emissions from soils, restores degraded land, and improves cattle health and productivity

International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)

Study author Margaret Worthington examines Brachiaria grasses in an experimental field at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture near Cali, Colombia. Credit Paul Blake / International Center for Tropical Agriculture
Study author Margaret Worthington examines Brachiaria grasses in an experimental field at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture near Cali, Colombia. Credit Paul Blake / International Center for Tropical Agriculture

Cattle are a mainstay for many smallholders but their farms are often on degraded lands, which increases cattle’s impact on the environment and lowers their production of milk and meat. Researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have shown that Brachiaria grass species can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and increase productivity – and breeding improved varieties can potentially augment the environmental and economic benefits.

But the breeding process is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. A breakthrough on Brachiaria‘s complex genome may make breeding much more efficient, and potentially increase the speed with which new grasses begin benefiting cattle farmers and the environment.

Margaret Worthington, a geneticist at CIAT and the University of Arkansas, and colleagues created the first dense molecular map of B. humidicola, a robust and environmentally friendly forage grass. They also pinpointed the candidate genes for the plant’s asexual reproductive mechanism, which is a huge asset for plant breeders. The findings were published in January in BMC Genomics.

“The idea is to create a better crop with less time and less money and to get it out faster to farmers,” said Worthington. “By using this molecular marker, you increase the odds of finding that rare winner.”

Traditional plant-breeding methods for Brachiaria grasses involve one of two complex techniques. One is to grow the plant to seed, and to study the seeds under a microscope to determine if the plant reproduced asexually. The other involves excising the plant’s embryos and conducting a similar analysis. Both techniques require many weeks, significant funds and highly trained specialists.

Asexual reproduction through seed, called apomixis, is key for developing new crop varieties for widespread use. Crops that reproduce through apomixis conserve the same traits from one generation to the next, essentially locking in sought-after characteristics such as drought tolerance or high nutritional value. Plants that reproduce sexually do not reliably pass on desired traits to subsequent generations.

Seeds, perpetually

With this molecular marker, plant breeders can run a quick and inexpensive test when Brachiaria grasses are seedlings to identify whether they reproduce through apomixis. The results are available in a couple of weeks. This allows plant breeders to select only asexually reproductive plants for trials, allowing them to allocate more time and resources to plants that have the potential to produce new cultivars.

Brachiaria grasses have often been considered an “orphan crop,” due to a lack of investment in research, but their potential for making tropical farms more productive and better for the environment is well known among tropical forage specialists. One recent study found that B. humidicola was especially adept at reducing the nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas, emitted from soil as result of cattle urine deposition. In addition, CIAT researchers have identified mechanisms that this tropical grass uses to efficiently acquire nutrients from soil.

Brachiaria breeders also value apomixis for smallholders in developing nations who have limited resources for investing in improving their farms. Improved grass varieties that produce sufficient quantities of trait-retaining seeds can eliminate the need to purchase new seeds for every planting, which is a potentially expensive barrier to adoption.

“This breakthrough allows for the acceleration of our breeding program for multiple traits, including the development of tropical forages that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make farming more eco-efficient,” said Joe Tohme, a senior scientist at CIAT and study co-author.

“This discovery represents a milestone in the path toward developing mitigation technologies in the livestock production sector,” said Jacobo Arango, a study co-author who is an environmental biologist from CIAT and a Lead Author for the next Assessment Report on Climate Change Mitigation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


Partners and funding

The researchers acknowledge support from the Yale University High Performance Computing Center (supported by NIH grants RR-19895 and RR-029676-01) and the Yale Center for Genome Analysis. This project has been supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program to SLD (NSF 1444478). Development of SSR markers was supported by the JIRCAS project “Development of ecologically sustainable agricultural systems through practical use of the biological nitrification inhibition function.”

Work at CIAT was supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ, Germany) under the GIZ Project Number 11.7860.7-001.00 and the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock. We thank all donors that globally support the work of the Livestock CRP through their contributions to the CGIAR System. None of the funding agencies played an active role in the design of the study, its execution, or the writing of the manuscript.

From EurekAlert!

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steve case
April 10, 2019 2:29 am

Researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have shown that Brachiaria grass species can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle …

Methane? They had to throw in that BS to get the grant right?

Reply to  steve case
April 10, 2019 11:34 am

First they came for the coal miners. Then they came for the farmers. America’s workers better watch out. What industry is next?

Johann Wundersamer
Reply to  steve case
April 15, 2019 7:07 am

Jim, “First they came for the coal miners. Then they came for the farmers. America’s workers better watch out. What industry is next?”

“Who’s next”:

“One recent study found that B. humidicola was especially adept at reducing the nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas, emitted from soil as result of cattle urine deposition.”

Careful with “urine deposition”!

April 10, 2019 2:31 am

Using fake climate change and adopting all their usual dog-whistle claims to justify large-scale introduction of GMO grasses is not only cynical and disingenuous but is a form of geoengineering. More sorcerer’s apprentices playing God.

Reply to  Greg
April 10, 2019 7:11 am

This is NOT GMO reseach. It is traditional cultivar development via natural variant selection, with an apomixis twist.

And GMO is innocuous, despite many mistaken/misguided claims to the contrary, since ‘alien’ proteins as well as ‘native’ proteins are digested in animal guts into their constituent amino acids for absorption into the circulatory system. Vitamins and their precursors are not strictly proteins so not an exception to this rigid biological rule. Anything else triggers the immune system to react to absorbed protein fragments, as wheat gluten protein in ciliac disease. Bt GMO maise essentially gives insect larvae (root cutworm) ciliac disease, but not mammals.

Reply to  Rud Istvan
April 10, 2019 9:13 am

What worries me is that with their focus being narrative rather than utility, they’re likely to reinvent it as a hybrid of kudzu and cheat grass, and we won’t discover the downsides until it’s already turned into an invasive species.

Tho as you say re GMOs… the normal human gut doesn’t much care about sources or combinations; that’s the soul of being an omnivore.

Reply to  Reziac
April 10, 2019 10:57 am

Tell you one problem with this, the plant uses C4 photosynthesis.. extensive intensive planting of a C4 plant is going to make life hard for any nearby C3 as C4’scan draw the CO2 levels down way below those a C3 needs to survive.

C4 and CAM plants aren’t normally fast enough growers to compete with C3’s and generally only succeed where C3 plants can’t grow, but add high growth rates..

I’ve heard proposals about introducing C4 genes into C3 plants and it gives me the willies. Most of the cheering is dedicated toward the drought resistance and reduced water needs, but I’d be concerned that if these get off the farms so to speak and are successful at naturalizing in large areas, we may find things could get ugly.

Rich Davis
April 10, 2019 2:59 am

Is this really GMO? Sounds like they mapped the genome and figured out which genes are responsible for naturally-occurring cases of asexual reproduction. Then knowing that plants that carry that gene will be asexually-reproducing, they test all trials for the marker gene. If the naturally-occuring trial has desirable characteristics and also carries the marker gene, then they have a candidate for an improved hybrid that will not degrade through sexual reproduction with other grasses that don’t have desirable characteristics. They can screen out sexually-reproducing varieties early in the trial and thus run more trials in less time. But still no gene splicing involved (no artificial mutations).

Whether this is really a beneficial change in the grasses, I can’t say. It comes to us from EurekAlert! so probably it’s garbage, but who knows?

Reply to  Rich Davis
April 10, 2019 5:28 am

Once you know the gene(s) involved, you can start trying to splice them into other organisms.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Writing Observer
April 10, 2019 5:18 pm

certainly you could, but that’s not what is described here

Leonard Weinstein
April 10, 2019 3:12 am

Attempting to develop a monocrop, however it is done, risks the same issue bananas and potatoes had. If a bug or virus or mold destroys the crop, all is lost, with no backup. The advantage of sex in crops is ability to change (evolve) to avoid single cause failure.

Reply to  Leonard Weinstein
April 10, 2019 4:13 am


That way starvation lies. Ask the Irish.

Reply to  Leonard Weinstein
April 10, 2019 5:30 am

Was about to note that above. Another problem is that unwanted mutations can propagate rapidly through the entire crop – mutations that would normally be rejected, or at least masked by sexual reproduction.

Reply to  Leonard Weinstein
April 10, 2019 8:46 am

If the genes for apomictic seeds are known, they can be transfered to other clones or even species, by crossbreeding or gene transfer. So this does not mean spread of one clone.

Peta of Newark
April 10, 2019 3:28 am

There is just sooooooooooooo much junk

I take from this that they want to soak up Nitrous Oxide (N2O) released from cow pee.
I was gonna say that any NOx would not come out of ‘proper soil’ if the soil was damp BUT, N2O is the exception and is fat soluble rather than water soluble.
Even then, Ma Nature is not so stupid as to let an extremely valuable nutrient as this simply blow away in the wind.
Nitrogen is THE Liebig Limiter for all plant and bacterial life on this Earth – hence why it makes such good fertiliser in agriculture.
Something is thus ‘wrong’ with the dirt – there is another nutrient in desperate deficiency that effectively allows the N to blow away.
Possibly potassium, phosphorus or sulphur.

Oh by the way people of California….
The Dept of Ag (Calif) send me emails and they now tell me about Boron deficiency – especially in newly planted Pistachios. I thought Almonds were the flavour of the month- seemingly not any more.

Baby pistachio plants take on a dead & dying appearance if they are short of Boron- typically caused by low oxygen levels within the soil. e.g. by waterlogging as you’ve had recently.
But here’s the punchline – critters like us use Boron for hormone production, especially oestrogen.

Bad News incoming for those possessed of Big Willies, its *not* only girls that ‘do’ oestrogen, boys have some too and oestrogen strongly affects your mood.
Need I say more…………

Otherwise all these folks seem to have done is re-invent Crop Rotation and a more efficient way of sucking the already limited soil nutrients out of the ground. They are speeding up Soil Erosion = hastening the arrival of the desert.
Even before Stanley Jevons pulls them up with a red flag

At least they are still keeping cows rather than sheep/goats so there is hope.

Especially this nugget from the Wiki:

Nitrous oxide occurs in small amounts in the atmosphere, but recently has been found to be a major scavenger of stratospheric ozone

This, to me, stinks.
Because we are told, concerning dirty diesels in city centres, that NOx actually promotes the production of ozone.
The actual catalyst/driver/energy source in both cases being UV.
Does the left hand know what the right is up to?

Reply to  Peta of Newark
April 10, 2019 3:41 am

left and right hands are busy under the table, one is handing the cash over the other is….”busy”

Reply to  Peta of Newark
April 10, 2019 9:55 am

Interesting reply! I have a few quibbles. Nitrogen is a special case nutrient in that it is the most abundant nutrient in every system, being a major constituent of air. While nitrogen is always present, the question is how much photosynthate the plant (or plant system) is willing to spend acquiring nitrogen and what are the consequences of spending that energy. Response to nitrogen fertilization is often mistaken as an indication that nitrogen is deficient. However a more nuanced interpretation is that giving plants free nitrogen relieves them of the energetic cost of acquiring nitrogen and so they are able to put more energy into other functions like growth. However, nitrogen is a physiologically active substance and while low energy cost nitrogen does stimulate growth, it has a wide range of other effects including reduction in the production of anti-browse compounds, reduction in disease resistance, delay in the onset of hardening and dormancy, etc. Nature rarely simply favours growth. The limited pool of photosynthate has to achieve multiple functions. When growth is selected over other functions something has to give, disease and insect resistance are usually first on the list. Therefore selecting for growth works well in highly managed systems where additional human interventions can control disease, insect etc. Maximizing growth in a subsistence farm pasture is going to bring cascading problems, as you indicated, including depletion of the readily available forms of nutrient- whether nitrogen or something else, increased risk of disease and insect attack, loss of drought resistance etc. Of course the other consequence of “free” nitrogen is that ruderal plants are adapted to flourish in those environments, so the consequence of making nitrogen too available is that you need more resources to fight weeds. So, the moral of the story is that it is nice that they have identified part of the mechanism for apomixis but the likelihood is very small that the finding is going to have application in primitive systems where the opportunity for further human intervention is limited. As with all modern developments in crop production, it will have most application in highly managed first world farms and the third world farmers will be left struggling to maintain production with the same old tools that have existed in agriculture for the millenia prior to the modern age.

Reply to  BCBill
April 10, 2019 5:59 pm

BCBill — good input, so I can’t find much to add to your overall explanation. My take on the article concerning their endeavors is, OK, nice, continue with the investigations and see what happens, but don’t elevate any hopes just yet.

April 10, 2019 3:54 am

thats one of em, theres a lot and they seem to be damned invasive, if its like kikuya and couch buffel and others we had introduced into aus as dryland fodder plants etc then someones going to be sorry.
buffel can kill and is damned near impossible to get rid of it clumps and needs burning heavily then ripping out ,
Phalaris is anothr the raved up and is now a perennial invasive problem(i have it and even digging out when it looks its not it spring to life with a drop f rain Phalaris staggers kills sheep and cows in my area if not watched carefully for it starting. the other name for some of the species is signal grass.
and it has many many tiny seeds so its not an issue of reseeding yearly but trying to control it once planted.
another expensive fiddle for bugger all real world use. oh and it mightnt be bad in heat but its lousy in cold or soggy areas they say

April 10, 2019 4:14 am


That way starvation lies. Ask the Irish.

April 10, 2019 4:17 am

From EurekAlert!

comment image

April 10, 2019 4:30 am

I see that the control freaks are at it everywhere.

I can’t figure out if those overdone individuals are trying to remove nitrogen from the soil or improve it. That isn’t clear. BUT -:p- Nitrogen is fertilizer for plants. Alfalfa and soybeans are both nitrogen-fixing plants that are (or should be) crops rotated with corn and other grains to prevent nitrogen depletion in the soil.

They need to quit meddling with Mother Nature. She has a long memory and a rotten temper and she’s quite willing to send them packing. The control freaks seem to be doing everything they can think of to disrupt natural cycles. They need some new direction to follow.

April 10, 2019 5:03 am

The world desperately needs to devote more resources to solving non-problems. That way liberals can feel smug, even while real problems go ignored.

Bob Smith
April 10, 2019 7:33 am

Will there be patents involved?

C Earl Jantzi
April 10, 2019 8:47 am

“This grass captures carbon”. DUH! So does EVERY GREEN PLANT on the face of the EARTH. It’s called photosynthesis, the basis of the FOOD CHAIN that supports ALL life on Earth.
And they get how much for this “research”? Can you say SCAM?

Jerry Palmer
April 10, 2019 10:58 am

Jeez.. even grass is getting more sex than I am..

James Fosser
April 10, 2019 2:12 pm

I am a genetic engineer and this is welcoming news as on a scale of 1-10 for asexuality my wife is over 20. I shall contact the researchers immediately and then get to work .

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