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Land Institute researches perennial grains

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Wes Jackson founded the Land Institute in 1976 with a focus on building agricultural systems with ecological stability.

Their research efforts toward such goals have included the breeding of perennial crops, as well as domestication of wild plants for human use. Their work has been successful and is ongoing.

Stan Cox, the Coordinator of Science for the Land Institute recently reported in the Fiscal Year 2011 update that 30,000 plants were transplanted to fields at the Land Institute. An updated greenhouse and additional research building facilitated an increase from last year.

“Although the bulk of growing occurs in the fields, the first generation of many of our new hybrids starts in the greenhouse, with a capacity of about 4,500 plants,” said Cox in the annual report. “Cross pollination of wheat is more successful under the protection of the greenhouse.”

The research teams at the Land Institute study perennial wheat and sorghum, as well as domestication of intermediate wheatgrass, perennial oilseeds and Illinois bundleflower. There have also been hybrid crosses involving corn and sunflowers made at the institute.

“We have done some work with sorghum bicolor and Johnson grass,” said Jackson on Oct. 4 in a presentation for the Northwest College Writers Series in Powell. “We are working to tame the Johnson grass. In China and Indonesia, we have support to breed perennial varieties of upland rice. In sunflowers, we are working to get the heads more centralized.”

“The seed weight is going up in our collection,” said Jackson. “In only three selection cycles we have been able to increase the size of the seed to more than double.”

Additional developments have enabled the plants an increased rate of survival.

“Out of almost 2,000 plants, 43 percent survived the summer of 2010,” explained Jackson. “Those are the parents for the future generations of plans, and from there, a bigger percentage will survive.”

There has also been some evidence showing good drought resistance in plants across the globe.

The variety of perennial wheat that the Land Institute has helped to create is called Kernza. The Land Institute describes Kernza as their domesticated intermediate wheatgrass. They are currently working to increase seed size and yield.

Kernza shows an intermediate between common annual wheat varieties and perennial grains from the dawn of civilization, exhibiting increased root systems and larger plants.

According to the Land Institute FY 2011 Annual Report, “In the 2010-11 field nursery, 819 (wheat) plants survived both the summer after harvest and the winter, a much larger number than in any previous case.”

Additionally, more than 50 new DNA markers were developed to identify each chromosome in the hybrid population. The population of wheat/wheatgrass plants is constantly being improved to expand genetic diversity, as well.

Other research in sorghum has developed a selection of “winter-hardy” perennials that are seen as superior plants. Continued research with sorghum in Hawaii has allowed development of plants that are growing faster in the second generations.

Along with research at the Land Institute, collaborating institutions, including the University of Minnesota, Prescott College, Dordt College and Michigan and Minnesota universities, as well as Applied Ecological Services in Wisconsin, have helped to further research.

Jackson has also begun approaching various foundations with a plan to increase research that is feasible.

“We need to have a 30-year program devoted to developing agriculture based on the way natural ecosystems work,” said Jackson. “We can do it now because we have perennials on the horizon, and we are able to take what we have learned from the broad discipline of ecology and apply it to our fields.”

Jackson’s plan involves using scientists and 11 candidate locations around the globe to continue research, as well as five virtual research sites at academic institutions across the United States.

“If we were to train 110 PhDs in various disciplines, we would have them work in clusters around the planet,” added Jackson. “The cost to educate and train those 110 fellows is only $24 million.”

Research efforts at the Land Institute utilize natural processes and molecular genetics, but not gene splicing, to reach the end goals.

Molecular genetics is a tool, according to Jackson, to help identify the markers in plants that code for the traits they desire. He emphasizes they are not genetically splicing or modifying plants, but rather using the approach to reduce the workload and time required to develop successful perennial plants.

Jackson describes that. by merging molecular biology techniques and knowledge of ecology, a new revolution in science will begin.

“Every time there has been a synthesis, there has always been a flowering of knowledge and energy develops, something great,” emphasized Jackson, who used examples of Darwin’s merge of natural history and biology and Watson and Crick’s development of genetic code as being prominent starting points in the development of scientific knowledge. “Now we have the chance for the fourth synthesis with perennials on the horizon – ecology and agriculture coming together for crop and for grain agriculture.”

Jackson hopes that perennial plants will combine agriculture and ecology to ultimately create more sustainable systems.

“There is a reservoir of knowledge that has been paid for and put on the shelf. We know how these systems work,” said Jackson.

Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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