Using crop wild relatives in breeding is a long and laborious process that is typically much more difficult than breeding with cultivated crop varieties. Many plant breeders avoid the use of crop wild relatives for this reason. The first step towards using CWR in breeding is pre-breeding, an essential component of the Project consisting of activities that aim to isolate desired genetic traits (e.g., disease resistance) and introduce them into breeding lines that are more readily crossable with modern, elite varieties.
Thus far, the Project team has launched two pilot pre-breeding studies, one for rice in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute and Cornell University, and one for sunflower in collaboration with the University of British Columbia. Initial results have revealed interesting and diverse traits for early flowering in the wild sunflower species Helianthus hirsutus, a key trait for climate change adaptation due to changing growing seasons. In addition, another sample of H. hirsutus was found to have genetic diversity potentially utilizable to increase yield, despite its evolutionary distance from cultivated sunflower, Helianthus annuus.
Pre-breeding expert consultations for several of the target crop genepools were organized, which helped to prioritize and guide the development of projects on crop wild relative pre-breeding and evaluation. In addition to the two pilot studies, projects for seven additional crops have been developed thus far: potato, lentil, eggplant, chickpea, carrot, (durum) wheat and sweet potato. The pre-breeding projects include capacity building components and feature collaboration between research partners in the CGIAR system, universities and national program partners in the developing world. For example, the potato pre-breeding project team includes the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, the National Agricultural Research Institute (INIA) of Uruguay, and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA).