Ann Marie Thro, Ph. D. in Plant Breeding, 1982, from Iowa State University
A career choice for studying nature and making a positive difference in today’s world
Plant breeding allows us to study nature, and to make a positive difference in the world — both things that we believe God wants us to do and, indeed, enjoys doing with us. As just two examples among many: the work of Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk (pictured), is one of the foundations of scientific plant breeding; and, plant breeding enabled Norman Borlaug and co-workers to save lives and create incentives for peace through the Green Revolution.
Today, plant breeding is one of one of our few approaches for coping with challenges such as population growth and affordable food; variable and extreme weather and climate; and needs for protecting the environmental and for improving nutrition for health. Simply defined, plant breeding is the human-aided development of new plant cultivars with needed characteristics. Basic steps involve assembling, testing, and selecting among genetically-different plants.
Today is an exciting time in plant breeding, with many new developments converging. One of these, molecular genomics, is a valuable new tool that has stimulated interdisciplinary collaboration and development and use of additional new insights, methods, and tools, from remote sensing of field performance to data management, and much more.
Plant characteristics needed from breeding include resistance or tolerance to pests and diseases; better growth and production even in extremes of heat, cold, drought, or flooding; and traits that protect soil and water quality. Additional breeding objectives include plants that can grow and thrive in complex situations or new production systems, such as in mixtures, or in “precision agriculture”, to help maximize farm production across different soils, water, and other conditions, and reduce pressure wilderness areas.
Plant breeding for food and societal needs began in pre-history, with early Middle Eastern development of wheat for different uses; and the development of corn by the First Americans. Contemporary examples include breeding fruits to combine flavor with yield and disease resistance; grains, fruits, and vegetables bred for optimal nutritional values; nutritious animal forages, and plant bred for benefits to pollinators. Plant breeding can improve wood quality, floral characteristics, bio-energy content, and other needed qualities.
Most plant breeders work in private companies, both large and small. Others work in public universities or agencies, on needs and opportunities that don’t lend themselves to a commercial model. Examples are small–acreage crops, or objectives requiring “long arcs of research” (phrase coined by T. Carter, ARS). Public-sector positions involve publication in addition to breeding new experimental lines and ready-to-grow varieties.
Land-grant universities typically integrate plant breeding research with educating the next generation of plant breeders. A few other universities also educate plant breeders--including a few Christian universities-- especially at the undergraduate level. Advantages of a university with an active plant breeding program include early coursework in plant breeding and other agricultural sciences; and, student jobs in working in ag research programs. However, any college with a good general biology program can prepare students for starting graduate studies in plant breeding and other agricultural sciences. At the graduate level, attending an agricultural university is more important. A plant breeding student will have classmates from all over the world, both developed and developing.
Financial aid is often available to plant breeding graduate students. Research assistantships are usually specific to a particular program, and funded by State, Federal (USDA/NIFA), and farmer and commodity groups. Scholarships and fellowships are often specific to a student’s proposal; sources include Federal (USDA/NIFA; National Science Foundation; Dept. of Education); and private companies partnering with universities.
Federal plant breeders typically work in USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and a few other agencies. USDA breeders work across the U.S. on a wide range of plants for food, feed, fiber, timber, energy, conservation, and environmental restoration. Plant breeding is also conducted by other countries, and by the international research centers that achieved the Green Revolution and continue to address poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and environmental degradation. Across sectors, project leaders typically have a Ph.D., while technician positions require an M.S. degree or in some cases a B.S.. Technical-level work in plant breeding offers room for ingenuity, and carries considerable responsibility.
There is a need to educate future plant breeders. A recent study by USDA NIFA and Purdue Univ., with Department of Labor data, estimated almost 58,000 skilled job openings in the overall ag sector in 2015, but only enough qualified graduates to fill about 60%. About a quarter of those openings (+ 6000) are expected in agricultural sciences, including plant breeding. A recent study asked over two hundred globally-selected public and private-sector experts, “What do today’s plant breeders need to know?” http://sbc.ucdavis.edu/Outreach_and_Public_Service/Plant_Breeding_Education_Delphi_Study/)
Cited as most-needed knowledge areas were: Basic/classical plant breeding and genetics; selection theory // Crossing methods // Experimental and field plot design and data analysis, statistics // Software and computer competence; database management // Quantitative genetics and population genetics // Plant pathology // Knowledge relevant to breed for abiotic stress resistance or tolerance // Molecular selection techniques, molecular genetics // Biometrics // and // Professional ethics // Communication skills // Teamwork skills.
In summary, a career in plant breeding can have an impact through practical solutions to real needs. At the same time, it allows us to share God’s enjoyment and marvel at the world’s plants and the wonders of variation, genetics, and inheritance.
Plant Breeding as a Career
Some sources and resources as of 2015 This list is not exhaustive; there are many other sources.
Education in public plant breeding:
State land grant university web sites of most states
Look for the college of agriculture—which may go by different names in different states
Other public universities with agriculture programs
Information about careers in plant breeding, and specific job postings:
Special membership rate for students allows access to jobs posted; also a site for the graduate student working group, and opportunities to visit with private sector liaisons.
Resources for students thinking about the private sector in particular, e.g. for questions about optimal course work, job types, and other information:
Information about plant genetic resources and related issues:
Information about the international centers, or “Green Revolution centers”
Information about current demand for agricultural graduates:
Information about plant breeding in USDA:
For questions about this 2015 CWIS presentation, contact Ann Marie Thro - email@example.com
Ann Marie Thro, Ph. D. is a national program manager at USDA. The opinions this essay are her own and do not represent any official statements of the USDA.