National Floriculture Forum

March 18, 2003 - 12:09

Breeding programs and Germplasm Resources in the United States.

In Columbus, Ohio, on February 21-23, The Ohio State
University, the American Floral Endowment (AFE) and a group of national
sponsors hosted the National Floriculture Forum (NFF). This event changes
location and subject matter each year, and 2003 focused on ornamental plant
breeding programs and germplasm resources in the United States. Because these
programs have such a huge impact on what new crops are available each year, I
thought I'd take a break from talking about crops this month and give you an
overview of what was discussed at this meeting and how it may impact the
breeding and discovery of new crops in the future.

Definitions and Introductions

The main sponsor of this event is the AFE, the leading,
not-for-profit, non-governmental source for floricultural/environmental
horticulture research and development funding in the United States. Attendees
at NFF include national and regional industry representatives, floriculture and
horticulture researchers from universities across the United States and
researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the
Agricultural Research Service (ARS), along with members of the American Association
of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta (AABGA) and representatives of the National
Greenhouse Manufacturers Association (NGMA). If you have survived the barrage
of acronyms, we'll move on...

So, what is germplasm? It is the pool of genetic material
(in the form of plants, seeds, cuttings and tissue) that is maintained for use
in research and breeding efforts around the world. Germplasm is maintained by
all of the above groups for research programs, breeding programs and the
preservation of endangered species. Because in commercial breeding programs it
is all too easy to lose disease resistance or stress tolerance when searching
for the largest fruit or most dynamic flower, keeping this bank of genetic
material in reserve allows plant breeders to request ancestral plants and use
them to bring back valuable traits that might otherwise be lost. The kinds of
germplasm maintained varies by location, facility and the type of agency that
controls it.

New plants. New plants come from breeding programs and
introduction programs around the world. Each of the agencies above plays some
role in the breeding, development, introduction or preservation of ornamental

There are many factors that affect how quickly a plant can
be released to the industry. Some plants are released as soon as production
meets minimum market needs; others must go through the patenting process, which
may add a few years onto the release dates. Traditional breeding programs take
the longest time between idea and new product, simply because of the time
involved in breeding and selecting new cultivars and building a seed inventory
large enough to meet demand.

Agencies and new plants. Private industry may use seed from
a USDA facility in its breeding programs so it can regain some of the disease
resistance found in ancestral plants. A university researcher may request plant
material from a botanic garden preservation program because harvesting from the
wild is illegal. New plants come from each of the groups attending NFF as well
as from collaborative efforts between groups.

Who stores Germplasm

governmental programs have an extensive network of germplasm storage facilities
throughout the United States (including the new ornamentals facility at The
Ohio State University), as well as a network of Plant Materials Centers
involved in releasing plant material to the industry. Major storage facilities
are in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maryland and other locations.

Botanic gardens.
Each botanic garden will have a different group(s) of plants it focuses on;
usually with fairly specialized collections. These collections will often not
be the plants on display at the garden, but maintained separately in closed
greenhouses, especially in the case of endangered species.

Universities. Around
the United States, both grant-funded and private-breeding efforts maintain
collections of plant materials for specific research.

Private industry.
Industry often maintains large collections of germplasm used in their own
breeding programs. As these breeding programs are corporate based, they are not
usually available to other agencies, although the releases from these programs
may find their way back into the system.

Individual collectors.
Private individuals are often responsible for some of the major breakthroughs
in plant breeding. Because individual breeders may put decades into their
programs but not release material to the industry, they are often invisible.
This area of germplasm preservation is probably the one least understood. As
the rush for new plant materials has increased, many of these private
collections have been purchased or patented into the industry, but more remain

Plant Breeding Locations

There are basically two different outlets for breeding programs:
the consumer side, where new cultivars are marketed to the public; and
research-based breeding efforts, where releases are made to the industry for
improvement of their own breeding. It is unfortunate that this research-based
breeding gets so little press among consumers, as some of the greatest work of
our age has been done in the improvement of food crops as well as in ornamental
efforts through this channel.

Historically, the USDA has engineered development of many food crops and conducted
breeding efforts towards solving problems with disease and pest issues on both
food and ornamental crops. Its breeding efforts are ongoing.

Botanic gardens.
Many botanic gardens around the world have active breeding programs; however,
most are oriented at preservation of endangered species and environmental
issues rather than new plant development, although many commercial selections
have had their basis in botanic collections.

University. While
certain universities maintain breeding programs in support of both new cultivar
and problem-based programs, lack of support and downsizing have limited the
level of academic breeding programs. Many universities now have faculty members
who devote a small portion of their time to breeding efforts, but it may or may
not be funded by or credited to the university.

Private industry.
The new-crop boom has stimulated breeding programs throughout the industry,
both breeding programs and selection/collection of new crops. Materials from
breeding programs tend to be delivered to the grower with better production
information on how to produce the crop. Plants "discovered" and
released immediately into the industry often arrive with little information on
how to produce the crop, and this can cause problems in production.

Individual collectors.
The new-crop boom has also pushed the discovery of individual breeding
programs. The industry is making deals with private breeders for both
collections and hybrids, as incorporating these collections into the industry
can save a lot of time in the release of new cultivars. Many of these private
collections come to the industry with a lifetime of breeding work behind them
and the ability to revolutionize a given crop or crops.


The one thing that I learned from the NFF gathering this
year was how much plant breeding goes unnoticed. Dr. Dick Craig of Penn State
(also famous for his work in geranium breeding) gave a nice presentation on
university breeding programs, outlining how there has been valuable work done
on ornamentals in every state. At the end of the day, I was thinking of how
many private individuals and plant breeders working in vegetable crops, fruit
crops and tropical foliage crops are also dabbling in ornamentals —
unknown to the rest of the industry. It seems we all need to learn more about
what is going on in different areas of the business to make sure that the work
of all these people sees the light of introduction into the marketplace.

There is a decline in university-based breeding programs as
universities are pressuring their researchers to find more immediate sources of
funding than long-term traditional breeding. So there is reason for concern;
our industry reports having a harder time finding university graduates with
plant breeding experience. Since it is university graduates, for the most part,
that supply the industry with new generations of plant breeders, a big part of
the forum this year was devoted to looking at how to produce more graduates
with an interest in breeding. In many cases, promising graduates are moving
into molecular genetics instead of traditional breeding. At the University of
Florida, almost all of our molecular genetics graduate students are also doing
a small amount of traditional work.

All things considered, I don't think there is much to worry
about in terms of new crops and diversity in the near future. All the agencies
I mentioned above move at different speeds and their goals also differ, but
they are all contributing, at least for now, to a healthy germplasm and
breeding network.

The 2003 NFF will be held at Fairchild Tropical Gardens in
Miami, Fla., February 20-22, 2004, and the topic will be Improving
Communications Among All Branches of National Horticulture. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

About The Author

Rick Schoellhorn is associate professor of floriculture at the University of Florida. He can be reached by phone at (352) 392-1831 or E-mail at

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