Experts from the Costa Rican Coffee Institute have been trained by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to learn how to apply nuclear science and technology to breed plants that are resistant to diseases such as coffee leaf rust. The training took place at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)/ IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria and at the Austrian University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (Universität für Bodenkultur Wien). It was part of a project, partially funded by the OPEC Fund for International Development, to establish a global research and development network to help producing countries respond to coffee leaf rust.
For two weeks, coffee experts from Costa Rica learnt about how to use radiation to create varieties that can withstand coffee leaf rust. Plant mutation breeding, as the technique is called, can speed up the process of introducing changes to a plant’s genetic make-up. This helps researchers find plants with desired traits, such as disease-resistance, faster than when using traditional breeding methods, without affecting other desirable characteristics, such as taste. “Traditional breeding takes 20 years,” said Noel Arrieta Espinoza, a breeding and genetics coordinator at the Costa Rican Coffee Institute. “Developing new varieties can be done much faster by inducing mutations with gamma irradiation.”
“Plant mutation breeding is a fast way to develop improved crops with new and useful traits,” said Stephan Nielen, a FAO/IAEA geneticist in charge of the training. “The method also offers a widely accepted, economical and environmentally sustainable approach to protect yield and ensure adequate quantities of pesticide-free crops.” The training course included lectures and practical laboratory exercises so that participants could learn about the technique and gain a better understanding of how to set up a crop mutation breeding programme.