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Biodiversity - the past and future of food security

Biodiversity is vital to food security, and this project aims to bring attention to this often neglected issue in the minds of the public and researchers alike.

It is a joint project between the Department of Plant Sciences, Cambridge University Botanic Gardens and the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and is being led by Dr Samuel Brockington.

Crop wild relatives and heritage crops are important genetic resources for current and future crop breeding. It is important to ensure a wide genetic basis when it comes to crop breeding, as this means breeders have access to a bigger ‘toolkit’ of traits, and so have more flexibility when breeding plants adapted to new conditions. With the climate changing, it is more important than ever that we have access to this toolkit of traits, to ensure we are able to breed crop varieties suitable for challenging future conditions. Currently the main commercial varieties of major crops such as wheat and maize are drawn from a relatively small gene pool, however scientists are working to ensure there is a greater genetic diversity available, and this project hopes to encourage and facilitate this work.

The Cambridge University Botanic Gardens aims to collate specimens of crop species and their wild relatives that have been fully sequenced, as both an educational and a research tool. These specimens will be planted in the Botanic Gardens for the public to see, with interpretation boards to explain what genetic sequencing is, and why it is important that the specimen in question has been sequenced. It is also hoped that by having the resources in the garden, researchers will be encouraged to incorporate them into their research, and can easily access samples for preliminary investigations.

In addition to the ‘whole genome’ collection, the team hope to create a planting display as ‘a physical manifestation of the history of domestication’, using the work of the Food Globalisation in Prehistory (FOGLIP) project. The idea is to show how agricultural diversity has been lost over time, with a transition from the broad diversity of a pollinator-friendly grass meadow (including wild crop relatives such as the wheat ancestor goat grass), to intermediates such as teosinte (the highly branched precursor to maize), and culminating in monocultures of highly selected and recognisable crops such as maize and wheat. This should be a powerful visualisation of the reduction in biodiversity, and a valuable educational display within the garden.

The physical side of the project will be accompanied by a talk or series of talks on the subject of the importance of biodiversity to food security, open to the public and researchers alike. The group hope to attract influential speakers from this area, in order to fully discuss the issues faced, and stimulate further debate.

This project is a unique mix of educational tool and research resource, and will be a fascinating way to give recognition to the importance of biodiversity to food security, which is an aspect often overlooked. Hopefully it will generate more work in this area, whether from our current researchers, or by inspiring the next generation.

Joanna Wolstenholme, Communications intern

Global food security is a major research priority for UK and international science.

Cambridge Global Food Security is a Strategic Research Initiative of the University of Cambridge. We promote an interdisciplinary approach to addressing the challenge of ensuring all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life. 

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