ASM Fellow Professor Dr Wickneswari Ratnam FASc delivered her Fellows’ Lecture titled Tropical Plant Genetics and Genomics: Investment for Future Security.
The lecture was held in UKM Bangi on 18 March 2019, which also doubled as UKM’s series of Syarahan Perdana.
Her lecture was divided into three main sections:
- Assessment of genetic diversity of tropical forest species for sustainable forest management
- Development of genomic resources for Acacia breeding
- Varietal improvement of rice using molecular techniques
Assessment of genetic diversity of tropical forest species for sustainable forest management
In the first part of her lecture, Dr Wickneswari elaborated on the outcomes of genetic research in the understanding of genetic diversity, evaluated by various molecular markers and demographic studies.
Dr Wickneswari stressed on the importance of genetic diversity, as it ensures continuity of an ecosystem to its surroundings.
According to her, evolution would not have happened without diversity; hence individual species are unable to properly adapt to its surroundings. This in turn leads to a decline in population size a rise in infertility, resulting in species extinction.
Genetic diversity is also important on an ecosystem level; Dr Wickneswari cited the importance of the diversity of keystone species: organisms that have a disproportionately large impact on their community or ecosystem relative to their abundance that helps maintain local biodiversity.
For instance, trees are the main components of a jungle. Hence, the genetic diversity of its species in vital for the jungle ecosystem’s functionality.
According to Dr Wickneswari, the major threat to genetic viability of the Southeast Asian forest species is commercial logging and to a lesser extent, forest fragmentation.
Good forest management practices are amongst important efforts to ensure conservation of forest genetic resources.
Development of genomic resources for Acacia breeding
In the second part of her lecture, Dr Wickneswari elaborated on genomic approaches in Acacia tree improvement for enhanced wood quality for the regional pulp and paper industry.
Genetics or genomics research is very crucial in accelerating improvement of plants with economic importance.
Dr Wickneswari stated that Acacia mangium, A. auriculiformis and their hybrids are good candidates for wood pulp and softwood production in Malaysia, due to their ability to grow well on poor soils, as well as the availability of Acacia plantations in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah.
Dr Wickneswari carried out a research to understand the molecular basis of lignin biosynthesis of lignin in Acacia species using genomic approaches.
Genetic engineering experiments have been targeted to gene coding for enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of lignin precursors. By genetically reducing the expression of certain genes, poplars possessing a very low level of these enzymes have been obtained and characterised.
This knowledge is then used to create elite planting materials that significantly improves wood pulp production.
Varietal improvement of rice using molecular techniques
Finally, Dr Wickneswari elaborated on her research to improve rice plants for increased yield and resistance to diseases for the national paddy and rice industry.
By transferring a beneficial wild allele from O. rufipogon to the subspecies O. sativa indica, Dr Wickneswari was able to create a variant that has a higher yield and matures faster.
In addition, Dr Wickneswari’s research was also able to create variants with high resistance to Magnoporthe grisea (karah padi) and Rhizoctonia solani (hawar seludang), two diseases that afflict rice plants in Malaysia.
Not only does the creation of more resilient rice plants contribute to a higher yield of rice, it also reduces the farmers’ dependency on hazardous pesticides, thus ensuring the health of farmers, the environment as well as end consumers.