Sorghum Partners culturing aphids in greenhouse laboratory, then let them loose on growing hybrid sorghum plants.
Meet Larry Lambright’s new sorghum hybrid — resistant to the sugarcane aphid.
“We’re not GMO (genetically modified organism), but we’re using genomic technology to move traits around by developing genetic markers,” he said.
Lambright leads the sorghum breeding program for Chromatin seed company’s Sorghum Partners. He and his co-workers culture the aphids in their greenhouse laboratory, then let them loose on growing sorghum plants. The experimental crops grow in soil-filled pans the size of a large casserole dish. Staff plant conventional seeds next to the hybrids for control purposes.
The company has larger research plots near Idalou and in other locations such as Puerto Rico, where the growing season is longer.
Cross-breeding is comparable to natural selection, but in a more controlled environment.
Researchers identify sources of resistance, then breed them repeatedly. After several generations, the desirable trait becomes a fixture of the plant’s genetics.
“There’s a lot of serendipity involved in plant breeding,” Bruce Maunder, a research advisor for National Grain Sorghum Producers, said.
Resistance can work through three separate modes of action. First, there’s tolerance — insects can still attack the plant, but its growth and reproduction don’t suffer as much. Lambright’s healthy sorghum leaves with aphid infestations are an example.
Antibiosis, another mechanism, describes an interaction between the sorghum and aphid. The plant contains a chemical or other factor that actually hurts the insect, reducing its reproductive ability and numbers.
In antixenosis, “there’s something about that plant they just don’t care for,” Lambright said.
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