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Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory

Twenty five years ago, the IAEA initiated a research programme on the development of in vitro mutagenesis in banana at the Plant Breeding Laboratory and since then has developed considerable and unique knowledge on the use of mutation techniques and related biotechnologies in Musa. Seibersdorf became famous and internationally acknowledged for its leadership in banana biotechnology. Through 25 TC projects and 2 CRPs on banana, in vitro mutagenesis on banana has been implemented in several banana-producing countries. Three mutant banana varieties are worth mentioning here:

  • Novaria in Malaysia (early flowering),
  • Klue Hom Thong KU1 in Thailand (bunch size and cylindrical shape), and
  • Albeely in Sudan (out-yielding local varieties by 30% to 100%).


More mutants are in the pipeline for varietal release in Cuba, Malaysia, The Philippines and Sri Lanka. The targeted traits are improved agronomical characters such as height reduction, earliness and larger fruit size. Although disease resistance seems to be more difficult to be gained through mutation induction techniques, mutants tolerant to the toxin from the disease agent were obtained by PBU at Seibersdorf, and are about to be screened in the field. Through the recent FAO/IAEA/GDIC Coordinated research Project (completed in 2002), we have established an interregional network on the use of mutations for banana improvement. Furthermore, techniques and methodologies have been developed and transferred, which have set the stage for the creation of a Global Musa Genomics Consortium hosted by Bioversity International (Montpellier, France). Banana through the Global Musa Genomics Consortium and programme considering its small genome size has a chance of becoming a model plant for vegetatively propagated crops. This has led to the development of a TILLING platform for banana -an invaluable resource for reverse genetics and breeding for the global community - in the Plant Breeding Laboratory of Seibersdorf.

The Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory (PBG Laboratory) is one of five laboratories that make up the Joint FAO/IAEA Agriculture and Biotechnology Laboratories at Seibersdorf. As a part of the Sustainable Intensification of Crop Production Systems (SICPS) sub-programme of the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre, the activities of the Plant Breeding and Genetics Section (PBG) and PBG Laboratory are aimed at assisting national plant breeding programmes in the use of mutation techniques and modern biotechnologies to develop better varieties of major and under-utilized food and industrial crops. At the PBG Laboratory, we carry out this task through the provision of services; individual and group training programmes; and through research and development activities.

Services provided at the PBG Laboratory

On request, the following services are provided at no cost to Member States of the IAEA and FAO by the Laboratory:

  • Mutation Induction

Plant propagules are irradiated for scientists from Member States using the Cobalt-60 source located at the Agency's Laboratories at Seibersdorf, Austria. The Laboratory staff also work with such national programme scientists in determining the optimal radiation doses as well as provide technical support for the field evaluation of mutant lines.

  • DNA fingerprinting

The Laboratory provides DNA fingerprinting services for crop mutants with promising agronomic traits. These data can provide diagnostic molecular markers for use in marker-assisted breeding. In addition, genetic fingerprints protect intellectual property rights of the NARS breeders.

  • Ploidy Determination
    Flow cytometry measurements are applied for the determination of the ploidy levels of plants. Genetic improvement involving hybridisation across ploidy levels (diploid, aneuploid or polyploid) is important in wide crossing involving polyploid plant species such as rice wild relatives and banana.
  • Mutant germplasm database and repository
    The FAO/IAEA Mutant Variety Database provides information on officially released crop mutant varieties, the mutagen used and characters affected.

Training at the Laboratory

The training provided to scientists from Member State is aimed at producing a critical mass of well-trained manpower capable of applying induced mutations in broadening the genetic base of crop germplasm available to the breeder. With a high premium placed on efficiency, the training programmes emphasize such ancillary in vitro techniques as cell, tissue and organ techniques for regeneration, multiplication and distribution of induced mutants. Individual and group training courses also emphasize the integration of molecular genetic techniques into induced mutagenesis programmes in order to develop molecular tags for the mutated segments of the genome and, in turn, use such tags as neutral markers for tracking the inheritance of the mutations.

Training programmes offered in the Laboratory include:

  • Mutation induction for broadening the genetic base of crop germplasm in seed and vegetatively propagated crops.
  • DNA marker techniques for mutated germplasm characterization and marker-assisted selection.
  • In vitro culture in combination with mutation induction.

Research and Development Activities

In response to specific problems identified by Member States, research and development activities presently focus on removing certain production constraints to rice and banana through the application of induced mutations and related biotechnologies. Molecular genetic assays are used for developing molecular tags for marker-aided selection while in vitro techniques are also used for accelerating the crop improvement process, for germplasm conservation as well as for safe cross- border transport of disease-free plants.

Development of saline tolerant rice varieties

Rice is the world's most important food crop and occupies over 148 million hectares. Yields, however, are severely and increasingly limited by salinity. Salt-affected lands make up over 900 million hectares globally and include potential rice growing areas. Improved tolerance to salt would significantly improve rice production in affected areas and thereby benefit local communities through the generation of enhanced income. One of the highlights of mutation research at the Laboratory has been the development of salt tolerant mutants in rice through a collaborative effort between the IAEA and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, Philippines).

Developing disease-tolerant bananas

The genus Musa contains two important world food crops, banana and plantains. Combined, they are a major staple for millions of people in tropical and sub-tropical regions of Africa, Asia, the Pacific Region and South America where they are produced in over 100 countries. One of the major production constraints to these crops is the banana black leaf streak disease (BLSD or black sigatoka), caused by the fungus Mycosphaerella fijiensis. This disease poisons banana plants and can reduce yields by up to 50%. Though chemical control for this disease does exist, the environmental implications are enormous. A population of induced banana mutants have shown tolerance to juglone a synthetic form of the toxin produced by M. fijiensis under controlled conditions and are currently being multiplied for shipment to endemic regions in the tropics. Genetic profiling of the mutants and their wild-type parent has been initiated to develop a pool of candidate genetic markers for tracking the disease resistance trait. These markers will be used in marker-aided selection in developing black sigatoka-resistant varieties.

The Laboratory produces an Annual Report which is available for downloading together with the biannual Newsletter on the Sub-Programme's present and future activities.

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