Can we harness digital technologies and physiology to hasten genetic gain in US maize breeding?

Diepenbrock CH, Tang T, Jines M, Technow F, Lira S, Podlich D, Cooper M, Messina C

Published: 19 November 2021 in Plant physiology
Keywords: No keywords in Pubmed
Pubmed ID: 34791474
DOI: 10.1093/plphys/kiab527

Plant physiology can offer invaluable insights to accelerate genetic gain. However, translating physiological understanding into breeding decisions has been an ongoing and complex endeavor. Here we demonstrate an approach to leverage physiology and genomics to hasten crop improvement. A half-diallel maize (Zea mays) experiment resulting from crossing 9 elite inbreds was conducted at 17 locations in the USA corn belt and 6 locations at managed stress environments between 2017 and 2019 covering a range of water environments from 377 to 760 mm of evapotranspiration and family mean yields from 542 to 1,874 g m-2. Results from analyses of 35 families and 2,367 hybrids using crop growth models linked to whole-genome prediction (CGM-WGP) demonstrated that CGM-WGP offered a predictive accuracy advantage compared to BayesA for untested genotypes evaluated in untested environments (r = 0.43 versus r = 0.27). In contrast to WGP, CGMs can deal effectively with time-dependent interactions between a physiological process and the environment. To facilitate the selection/identification of traits for modeling yield, an algorithmic approach was introduced. The method was able to identify 4 out of 12 candidate traits known to explain yield variation in maize. The estimation of allelic and physiological values for each genotype using the CGM created in silico phenotypes (e.g. root elongation) and physiological hypotheses that could be tested within the breeding program in an iterative manner. Overall, the approach and results suggest a promising future to fully harness digital technologies, gap analysis, and physiological knowledge to hasten genetic gain by improving predictive skill and definition of breeding goals.